Rock Concert Review: Bob Dylan at the Tsongas Center — Nothing if Not Chameleonic

By Scott McLennan

But really, what is a Bob Dylan concert these days if not a case study in transformation?

Bob Dylan — still a protest singer. Photo: David Gahr.

When I was in my 30s, Bob Dylan had me terrified about lurching into my 50s. This was in 1997, and Dylan had released the phenomenal Time Out of Mind album. The record, made when Dylan himself was in his mid-50s, was simply haunted by mortality and decay. Shadows were falling. Souls were turning to steel. Heaven’s door was closing.

Dylan included four songs from Time Out of Mind when he performed November 19 at the Tsongas Center in Lowell. Now 78, Dylan was practically tap dancing in the twilight of “Can’t Wait,” punched up by the muscular drumming of his band’s new drummer, Matt Chamberlain. Dylan shook off the mournful tone of the recorded version of “Trying to Get to Heaven” and, positioned at an upright piano, led his crack band in a quick pace, dispensing such lines as “When you think that you lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more”  with more of an air of wisdom than a sense of dread.

But really, what is a Bob Dylan concert these days if not a case study in transformation?

On the latest leg of the Never Ending Tour, Dylan not only has a new drummer, but also a new and additional guitarist, with veteran of the blues and roots scene Bob Britt teaming with veteran Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton. Fiddle and steel guitar multitasker Donnie Herron and longtime Dylan bassist Tony Garnier remain in the fold, while Dylan himself plucked away at guitar at the show’s opening and closing and spent several numbers at an upright piano that looked rescued from an old saloon.

While 2019 was packed with anniversary and farewell tours from many of the artists Dylan came up alongside during rock’s golden era, his concert was not mired in nostalgia. Sure, the “newest” tunes in the 19-song set came from 2012’s Tempest, Dylan’s last album of original songs, but most everything he played was recast and reworked, sometimes rendering whole new impressions of familiar material.

“When I Paint My Masterpiece,” for instance, in its original iterations—both by Dylan and by The Band—had a sense of longing and yearning for those better times just around the corner. In Lowell, Dylan sang the song from the perspective of a man who has created many masterpieces and rounded many corners only to find that things really never do get any easier. Dylan wrapped “Masterpiece” in a whimsical arrangement suggesting that the ever present uncertainty we face is not something that should stop us in our tracks.

Earlier in the concert, Dylan sat at his piano for a tender “Simple Twist of Fate,” yet took liberties with the classic Blood on the Tracks cut, inserting new lyrics and editing a few. And yes, Dylan’s vocals were clear enough and sharp enough to make such changes noticeable.

Perhaps his past few years spent tackling material from the Great American Songbook buffed up Dylan’s vocal chops, as evidenced on a gorgeous read of “Girl From the North Country.”

Dylan was less radical with other classics, though “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Highway 61 Revisited” were righteously freewheeling and fresh. Songs from more recent albums, though, seemed to get deeper reads, such as the raw version of “Honest with Me” and a rocking blowout of “Thunder on the Mountain,” a fantastic showcase for his twin-guitar assault.

But for all his changes and shifts over the decades, Dylan still embraced his roots as a protest singer, a point perfectly made when he dusted off the Shot of Love gem “Lenny Bruce.” Again at the piano, Dylan delivered the song as a sermon, praising St. Lenny’s fight against the hypocrisies of corrupt authority, apropos of the times not really a-changin’.

And in the encore slot, before a blues-drenched “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” Dylan strapped on the electric guitar for his most biting of protest songs, “Ballad of a Thin Man,” making every incisive line feel as relevant today as it must have felt to those who first experienced the generational howl in 1965.

For nearly two hours, Dylan and his band made the case that there is absolutely no reason to go quietly into the night, an acceptable apology for making aging seem so damn scary 20 years ago.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.


  1. Adam Ellsworth on November 21, 2019 at 8:49 pm

    “Gorgeous” is the exact word I’ve been using to describe Tuesday night’s version of “Girl From the North Country.” I think this might have been my favorite Dylan concert.

  2. Ron A on November 23, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    Total BS, he is old and should stay home, you perpetuate this crap. Couldn’t understand one word, I have followed Bob Dylan for over 40 years. I was shocked at how bad he was. You should give a real review. I saw many folks walk out, and we did as well after the first hour. Should have left earlier.

  3. Carol Black on November 24, 2019 at 12:43 pm

    I was sitting in row 6 on the right (facing the stage) at Tsongas Arena for the Bob Dylan concert, and the back of the piano on the stage was angled toward us. He was usually either sitting at the piano, or standing toward the back of the stage, thus behind the piano. Whose bad idea was it to set the piano at an angle??? For the most part, except for the first couple of songs, he was invisible to us, and so we left. I came all the way from NC to see the show, and I was very disappointed, to say the least! I have lots of Dylan on CDs; I could have just stayed home and listened to them. Also, I was freezing from the ice beneath the floor. A waste of airfare, ticket prices, and time!

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