Unlike past concerts where Dylan gave what he could but the audience gave nothing back, at the Orpheum Bob seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself on stage.
By Adam Ellsworth
On some of his more recent trips to Boston, Bob Dylan has played to half empty arenas and for audiences that were, at least at times, pretty listless. Perhaps after so many years of having some Jagger-esque figure scream “How ya doin’ Boston!” at them all night, concert-goers don’t know how to react to a performer who says nothing, and just plays his songs.
This wasn’t the case last Friday night at Orpheum Theatre. The sold out crowd was enthusiastic throughout the two hour set, and it had a noticeable, positive affect on Dylan’s performance. Unlike past concerts where Dylan gave what he could but the audience gave nothing back, Bob seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself on stage and was sincerely appreciative of the reaction he was receiving.
That the crowd was up for anything was for the best, as the setlist was short on “classics,” even when compared to Dylan’s past recent trips to Greater Boston. 2012’s excellent Tempest was the dominant album of the night, with other 21st century tunes from 2006’s Modern Times, 2009’s Together Through Life, and 2001’s Love and Theft prominently featured. Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited were nowhere in sight.
A little more than two years after they were released, the Tempest songs have begun to take on a life of their own in concert. Hearing these “new” versions was one of Friday night’s greatest pleasures. “Duquesne Whistle” was sped up and juke-joint inspired, while “Pay in Blood” was extra devious and slightly funky. “Soon After Midnight” was even more romantic and sweet sounding than its recorded version while “Scarlet Town,” accompanied by banjo, was murderous. “Early Roman Kings,” the one Tempest song Dylan has played at all his Boston shows since the album’s release, didn’t differ too much from its original version, though his band, who were spectacular all night, clearly reveled in playing its “I’m a Man”-inspired backing. The main set closer, “Long and Wasted Years,” was similar to its recorded cousin as well, but it was so masterfully performed the crowd cheered wildly, earning a double index finger point of acknowledgement from Dylan. That might not sound like much, but for Dylan, it’s the equivalent of him jumping on the piano and blowing kisses to everyone.
Speaking of the piano, Dylan has noticeably improved on the instrument. He’s been playing it in concert since 2012, but during past performances it rarely stood out (his playing on “Visions of Johanna” in Lowell in 2013 comes to mind as an exception). On Friday night it was the dominant instrument whenever he sat behind it, adding new depth to the arrangements, a jazzy version of “Spirit on the Water” a particular highlight. Of course, if there’s one instrument that Bob can truly be called a virtuoso on, it’s the harmonica, which made well-received appearances on tunes including “Simple Twist of Fate” and “She Belongs to Me.”
“Simple Twist of Fate” and “She Belongs to Me” were two of the rare instances when Dylan dipped into his back pages Friday night. The other two were “Tangled Up in Blue,” which has become the one song he seems to always play no matter what and which shone as always, and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which was the first song of his encore. Not surprisingly, “Blowin’ in the Wind” sounded nothing like the civil rights folk anthem of the 1960s. In recent years, it has turned into a triumphant, bright, fiddle-drenched number. He played it with genuine feeling and joy on Friday night, as if to say, “There’s still much work to be done, but we did win a few battles along the way.”
The top moment of the show was also the most unexpected. The night’s final song was “Stay With Me,” most famously recorded by Frank Sinatra for the 1963 film The Cardinal. There have been reports that Dylan will be releasing an album of standards in the near future, and a few months back his recording of another Sinatra song, “Full Moon and Empty Hearts,” was made available on his website. Perhaps “Stay With Me” will be included on such an album, though it’s hard to believe any recorded version could beat the heartfelt reading Dylan gave at the Orpheum.
“Till I find to my wonder every path leads to Thee, all that I can do is pray, stay with me, stay with me,” Dylan sang at the close of the song, with steel-guitar swelling behind him. The backing was minimal, so every lyric, which Dylan sang directly to the audience, could be heard. When Dylan goes gospel, it naturally brings up uncomfortable thoughts of his late ’70s born-again, “Gotta Serve Somebody” period. But this wasn’t that. “Stay With Me” wasn’t preaching, it was humble and open-hearted, something personal that Dylan was sharing with the rest of us. When it was over, the crowd took a moment to recover from being bowled over, and then responded with a roar. The only disappointment of the night followed, when the house lights went up and it was clear that Bob wouldn’t be back to sing one more.
Above everything else, Friday night’s concert proved that Dylan is at his best when he’s in a good room with an audience that wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but right there with him. Hopefully he’s taken notice, and there will be no more arenas, half-empty or otherwise, in his future.
What Bob Dylan and His Band played
Things Have Changed
She Belongs To Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Workingman’s Blues #2
Waiting for You
Pay In Blood
Tangled Up in Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Spirit on the Water
Soon After Midnight
Long and Wasted Years
Blowin’ in the Wind
Stay With Me
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.