At 80 years old, Bob Dylan sounds imperturbable and fierce.
By Jason M. Rubin
It seems fitting, somehow, that Bob Dylan should perform at a beautiful theater like the Boch Center in Boston the day after Stephen Sondheim died (November 27). America’s — perhaps the world’s — two greatest lyricists are as alike as they are different: one changed American theater, the other changed American music (not to mention politics); both uncanny rhymers and storytellers; both tellers of uncomfortable truths in art forms previously considered simple entertainment. Both (likely) to keep working until they drop.
And that’s a good thing, because Dylan still has things to say and the will to get out on the road and say them. I should say sing them because ironically, as his famously gravel-textured voice has gotten lower and grainier, approaching Tom Waits territory, he has actually become a very effective crooner. In his mellower songs, no doubt an after-effect of doing back-to-back studio albums of Great American Songbook tunes in 2015 and 2016, he adorns vocal lines with melodic filigrees, holding notes in spite of a worn instrument that suggests its owner needs oxygen. At 80 years old, Dylan doesn’t move or talk much, not that he was ever confused with Mick Jagger as a performer. In fact, any time he rose from his piano (for years now he has played piano on stage rather than guitar and/or harmonica) and took a few steps with microphone in hand, the crowd roared in approval. I suppose it’s always worth applauding when a Nobel laureate comes a bit closer to his audience.
The fact is, Dylan is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Anyone attending a Dylan concert hoping for an anthemic, roof-raising encore of “Like a Rolling Stone,” or a nostalgic reunion with the 1964, 1974, or 1984 Bob Dylans, will be profoundly disappointed. However, if you understand that in 2021 you are going to get the 2021 Bob Dylan, you will see a true master at work. Although the 15-song, hour-and-a-half (no encore) set seemed to go by too soon, it was weighted heavily by eight songs from his most recent release, the widely lauded Rough and Rowdy Ways. No one loves hearing new songs in concert — especially when the vault of classics is stuffed full, as in Dylan’s case — but when they are this well-written and so expertly delivered, it’s a treat.
To that point, Dylan’s band was spot on, comprising guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio, who played wonderfully together; Donnie Herron, who played a number of instruments, including steel guitar, fiddle, and accordion; bassist Tony Garnier; and drummer Charley Drayton. Though Dylan’s music is somewhat primitive at its core, his live arrangements are complex, with strong blues and jazz influences and his longtime penchant for completely rearranging older songs. In fact, you might not even recognize which song it is until the chorus. The opening salvo of “Watching the River Flow” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” bore resemblance to the originals, whereas “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” were significantly sped up and funkified, to great effect.
The newer songs were rendered faithfully with some added rhythmic muscle, and Dylan’s belief in them was obvious. He sang the seemingly innocuous “Key West” from Rough and Rowdy Ways with the same conviction as he once had sung about Rubin Hurricane Carter. Because he views his own work so much differently than his fans do, Dylan was able to fill out the set list with such apparently random selections as “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (which, like “Watching the River Flow”, was originally released on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II), “To Be Alone With You” from 1969’s Nashville Skyline, “Every Grain of Sand” from 1981’s Shot of Love, and “Early Roman Kings” from 2012’s Tempest. No one but Dylan himself would have assembled a set list such as this, which is why audiences must suspend all preconceptions when seeing him in concert.
It wasn’t until the space between the penultimate and final songs of the night that Dylan addressed the audience at all. He introduced the band and made some comments about the local area (“Bunker Hill, Blue Hill, all the other hills”) and then brought up Paul Revere and asked the crowd to give a round of applause to the patriot and silversmith. It was another classic case of Dylan being Dylan, the most articulate wordsmith in popular music acting goofy for the fun of it. He will never give his audience what they want — Newport 1965 ring a bell? — but all we should want is for Bob Dylan to do what Bob Dylan wants to do. He’s earned the right to call his own shots and to be mercurial, surprising, and unconventional. I went to this show because Dylan is 80 and you never know when is the last time you’ll get the chance to see our remaining rock legends. I left the concert eager to see what he does next. He seemed to me to be a long way from sending in the clowns.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
By Scott McLennan
At 80 years old, Bob Dylan sounds imperturbable and fierce.
Dylan and his band brought the songwriting legend’s first tour since releasing 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways to the Providence Performing Arts Center on Nov. 26. This provocative 90-minute performance was stuffed with new material, featured new members of the band, and offered up some new arrangements of Dylan classics.
Rough and Rowdy Ways arrived when Dylan, like every other touring musician, was forced off the road by the Covid pandemic. The recording matched up to the best of latter-day Dylan, and seeing the material performed live yielded further evaluation, and re—evaluation.
In concert, Dylan teased out more plainly the dark humor that was lurking all over the album. The songs on the record that suggested Dylan was meditating on our – and his – cultural past came across with fighting spirit in concert. It was as if he was springing forward, chin out, ready for a brawl to defend the stuff that matters.
Dylan opened this tour earlier in November and he has been sticking to the same set list from night to night. He plays eight of the 10 songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways and five of the classic cuts from his repertoire that were chosen for Dylan’s “Shadow Kingdom” performance video, which was available for a week of streaming over the summer. There were a few holdovers from Dylan’s last appearance in the area, which was in 2019, including “Early Roman Kings” — a song from 2012’s Tempest that hinted at the poetic machismo Dylan would further develop on Rough and Rowdy Ways eight years later.
He also kept “Gotta Serve Somebody” in the rotation. Yet, as in 2019, this signature from Dylan’s “born again” period is recast as a fast and loose bar rocker with significantly different lyrics than those on the recorded version of the song. The tune has sort of become Dylan’s variation on the old “Aristocrats” joke: the set up can vary wildly from telling to telling but the punchline never changes and it works every time (and no, I am not talking about the joke’s filthy premise — I am talking about structure).
Those holdovers, plus a whimsical take on “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which Dylan played in 2019 and for “Shadow Kingdom,” fit into the dramatic context of the performance, which casts Dylan as a romantic, a rogue, and a sage. And, true to the claim of Rough and Rowdy Ways‘s “I Contain Multitudes,” bits of all three persona can typically be found in any one song.
Dylan drew on his paradoxes and contradictions even before he and his band really got down to work. The artistic giant was a diminutive physical presence, spending most of the show hidden behind an upright piano. Dylan occasionally shuffled out toward center stage, rarely taking a hand off of the piano — it was as if he needed it for support. Except for a brief sojourn into the open stage while he delivered the Sinatra-associated standard “Melancholy Mood,” Dylan stayed nested, leaving the action shots to his band mates.
And they complied. Longtime bass player Tony Garnier plucked and bowed his acoustic upright bass and, when called for, ripped on electric models. Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron inhabited a pod behind Dylan, whom he intently watched while deploying atmospheric flourishes on fiddle, electric mandolin, pedal steel guitar, accordion, and whatever else he had back there.
Bob Britt, who joined the band in 2019, cut an entertaining figure playing a range of guitars, from a rocked out flying-V to folksy acoustic. Doug Lancio is the new guitar player in the band: he handled the bulk of the riffing and rhythm work, largely stationed behind Dylan. Drummer Charley Drayton had his green kit set up on the side of the stage opposite Herron. He was an animated presence, whether producing a gentle swing or pounding out an insistent groove.
Dylan began the show with a pair of classics, starting with “Watching the River Flow.” His vocal delivery was wobbly at first, but soon it was evident that he has clearly found the spot in his songs where his timeworn vocal tone works. The honky-tonk arrangement was more blustery than the version Dylan released in 1971, and the lyrics were edited down a bit. Still, this excursion into solace seeking struck the usual emotional chords.
“Most Likely You Go Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” followed, performed playfully, as was the case when Dylan revived this Blonde on Blonde gem for “Shadow Kingdom.”
Generally, when Dylan dipped into his back pages the mood tended to be welcoming, as was the case with “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (mostly the classic lyrics, totally different pacing) and “To Be Alone With You” (mostly classic arrangement, totally different lyrics). Those songs connected well with the new “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You.”
But, as mentioned, the romantic Dylan was only one of the personae we got. The initial offerings from Rough and Rowdy Ways embraced the roguish, beginning with “I Contain Multitudes” and especially the follow-up, “False Prophet.”
Initially, these songs seemed to be quirky, self-referential Whitmanesque tone poems, allowing Dylan to pop around and about the cultural landscape of the 20th and now 21st centuries. But watching him deliver the tunes live brought out a theatrical element. On “False Prophet,” for instance, Dylan wasn’t really “the enemy of treason, the enemy of strife,” but assuming that role, inviting the listener to do the same.
Dylan cut the menacing dread of “Black Rider” with a wry sarcasm that can be read in different ways, depending on whether you want the rider to be a metaphor for death or simply a competing scoundrel on the scene. He invites us to ponder.
“My Own Version of You” likewise branches out. The song starts with some comical lines that sound like a scene in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab before it morphs into something far more troubling about the atrocities we inflict on each other.
Dylan gave faithful readings of the hymn-like “Mother of Muses” and the swaggering blues “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” two more tracks from Rough and Rowdy Ways. But he dug a little deeper into “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).”
Driven by Herron’s accordion, “Key West” moved away from its early airs of romantic escapism to become something far more disturbing. The lingering image of a 12-year-old forced into marrying a prostitute is a shocking contrast to the pleasantries of the tune’s early verses. This is a riposte to the tripe of the better-known Key West anthem “Margaritaville.”
Dylan made a spirited round of band introductions before ending his concert with “Every Grain of Sand,” a celebration of humility that is also a homage to the power of staying focused. As opposed to the times when Dylan turned the seemingly self-referential songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways into semi-public accusations, his treatment of “Sand,” the evangelical message from 1981’s Shot of Love, reversed course. He turned inward for an apt reflection on the performance he had crafted that evening.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, 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.