Concert Review: Bob Dylan at the Orpheum — Far From the Same Old Song

By Scott McLennan

Songs were wholesale rearranged and, most strikingly, Bob Dylan was a commanding presence at the baby grand piano for an 18-song, nearly two-hour set.

Bob Dylan — affirming the power of song. Photo: David Gahr.

I’m guessing the couple seated to my left at Bob Dylan’s concert Friday at the Orpheum Theater had a different impression of the show than I did.

After about four or five songs into the show, they walked out, and I doubt it was because they got an emergency text or call, since everyone in the venue had their cell phones sealed into magnetically locked pouches.

My hunch is that they figured out they were not going to hear the songs they wanted to hear the way they wanted to hear them. So, they left, and that’s their prerogative.

Likewise for Bob Dylan, it’s his prerogative to play the set he wants to play. And, by now, it’s been well established through stacks of reviews and articles that Dylan radically reinvents the songs you love. In fact, these days he plays very few of those songs, preferring instead to focus on material from his last album, 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Except when he doesn’t do that, as was the case when Dylan showed up unannounced at the Farm Aid concert in September, backed by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, to play pretty spot-on album-sounding renditions of “Maggie’s Farm” “Positively 4th Street” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.”  Something tells me couple-to-my-left would have liked that.

But in the first of three shows at the Orpheum, Dylan did what Dylan has been doing since this tour began two years ago.

Except he didn’t do that.

Yes, the setlist was nearly identical to the one he delivered when this show was in the area in the fall of 2021. He did drop “Early Roman Kings” to add “Crossing the Rubicon,” another Rough and Rowdy Ways song, leaving the epic “Murder Most Foul” as the only tune from that album yet to be performed in concert.

But the performance itself was radically different. Songs were wholesale rearranged, and, most strikingly, Dylan was a commanding presence at the baby grand piano for an 18-song, nearly two-hour set (it was hard to time since my damn phone was locked in a pouch).

In 2021, Dylan had an upright piano on stage, and he sort of moved around it, played it a little, adding occasional flourishes to the superb work of the five musicians he was conducting. Now he is authoritatively driving the music from his piano bench. Dylan, his longtime bass player Tony Garnier, and drummer Jerry Pentecost, who joined the band this year, were locked into a tight groove from the start, pushing and pulling the dynamics from song to song and often within songs, shifting the pacing mid-tune.

Doug Lancio and Bob Britt wove lovely guitar patterns around the proceedings, and Donnie Herron fleshed out the material via his battery of steel guitars, fiddle, and mandolin.

While the opening song “Watching the River Flow” unfolded in fairly predictable fashion (except that Dylan was seriously manning the piano), the now-customary second slot of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” offered the first signs that things have changed. Dylan crafted an elongated vocal meter for this Blonde on Blonde gem — it still galloped, but the mood was more bemused than urgent.

At 82, Dylan leaned into a roguish persona for this concert performance, emanating an air of scoundrel mischief on “False Prophet” and “Black Rider” from Rough and Rowdy Ways.

While Rough and Rowdy Ways initially struck many listeners as Dylan masterfully musing on his legacy, a different facet of that album has emerged through concert performances and the subsequent release of his book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. There are loads of references to musical giants in the RARW songs — the Rolling Stones, Leon Russell, Liberace, Chopin, and many others pop up here and there. Jimmy Reed gets a whole song to himself. Dylan’s 2022 book is essentially a freewheeling gathering of thoughts about songs he loves and was inspired by.

What has become clear is that the power of song is the through line in all of this activity. Dylan is piling up songs infused with the spirits of legendary songwriters, stacking those against some of his own legendary contributions to the Great American Songbook. These would include “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Every Grain of Sand,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and they remained in the setlist. But none of them sounded like they did when this tour launched.

The rearrangements have long been seen as a strategy to keep a classic catalog from becoming stale or turning into nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia. Add to that a new rationale: Dylan is not only pushing the idea that songs have something to say, but he is insisting that good ones have many things to say.

For example, a new long and meandering piano driven intro to “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” sets up an alternative smoky mood before Dylan drops the song back into the friskier rock ’n’ roll arrangement it has picked up in recent years. The story has changed: a PG rating was swapped for a more mature R rating (without changing a single word).

The rearrangements for the most part hit their marks, letting you hear great songs in different ways. The only one that backfired was Dylan’s rapid run through “My Own Version of You.” This wide-ranging cataloging cultural and historical references lost its clever edge as the song whizzed by.

“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” was stunning in its latest incarnation, which is not radically different from its original rendition.  This RARW ballad has often felt too airy, but at this point it has finally found firmer footing. Dylan kept the spectral elegance of the music intact while he landed the poetic lines with more heft. Now this sounds like the song that will follow in the footsteps of “Make You Feel My Love” — it will be become part of the standard repertoire for jazz and pop vocalists.

To celebrate the songs of others Dylan sang Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic,” which was typically featured in the shows he performed after he had released recordings of songs associated with Frank Sinatra.

And then, in what looked like an audible setlist call on stage, Dylan sang a transfixing version of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace.” Dylan and the Dead have had long, intertwining histories, but this emerged as not only tribute to that legacy but one more solemn affirmation of the power of song.

None of it, by the way, sounding like the same old song.

Sorry, couple to my left.

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.

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  1. Tony Russell on November 4, 2023 at 2:46 pm

    My wife and I were at that concert last night. I’ve been a Dylan fan for almost 60 years and have seen him numerous times and read all of his books. I remember seeing the documentary film Don’t Look Back in Boston around 1966. I missed not hearing a few of Bob’s originals but we were amazed at his fantastic nonstop piano ability and what sounded like a stronger rejuvenated voice. Hats off to you Mr. Dylan!

  2. Dick Nangle on November 4, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    Good idea to lock up the phones. Now how do we get concertgoers to shut up and actually listen to the concert?

    • Kimberly on November 4, 2023 at 10:44 pm

      100% agree with you!

    • James Alcorn on November 5, 2023 at 6:59 am

      That was our complaint too. Plenty were continuely talking during the songs and people looking for their seats 5 songs into the concert was bothersome.

    • Anonymous on November 5, 2023 at 9:00 pm

      Some of us had to move around to a standing area because the seats were too uncomfortable!

    • Jim on November 7, 2023 at 6:30 pm

      Dead on!!

    • Jim McCue on November 16, 2023 at 11:14 am


  3. Gerald Peary on November 4, 2023 at 5:21 pm

    An extraordinarily knowledgeable take on the concert. Thanks, Scott. I have copied it and passed it on to a group of Dylanites. They will be enormously interested in your insightful essay.

    • Traci on November 5, 2023 at 11:23 am

      100% Agreed! Well written review! I can’t wait to see tonight’s show!

  4. Andy Volkert on November 5, 2023 at 2:19 am

    Highly knowledgeable review. You’re tuned in to the essence of Dylan’s art and you’re probably the first critic to recognize the subtle shifts in “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” that elevate the song to “standard” status. I think that in general all of the Rough And Rowdy Ways songs have greatly benefited from the changes and various re-arrangements Dylan has introduced in concert. Some of the songs like “False Prophet”, “Jimmy Reed”, “Rubicon” and “Key West” have been turned into entirely different songs, far superior to the album versions. You rightly point out the great work by guitarists Doug Lancio and Bob Britt. I also like the new version of “My Own Version Of You”. The first in-concert arrangement of the song that Dylan used in 2021 and 2022 peaked early (in November 2021 and again in June 2022) but after that lost some of its intensity and urgency, so I welcome the entirely new, faster arrangement, which was facilitated by the more straightforward style of new drummer Jerry Pentecost. Dylan’s singing on the “Rough And Rowdy Ways Tour” is first-rate throughout.

  5. Chris Jolliffe on November 5, 2023 at 8:09 am

    This band has the stylistic chops of the Nashville crew that created Blonde On Blonde. For brief moments that “high wild mercury sound” was evident. Likewise there were times when his voice picked up subtle overtones of his lyricism from that era, couched in the low register of 82 where he now lives.

  6. Jen on November 5, 2023 at 9:01 am

    Friday night was magical. Saturday night paled in comparison.
    My opinion. Maybe because Friday my seat was on the left. Saturday I was seated on the right. Same row


  7. American Primitive on November 5, 2023 at 11:00 am

    I’ve never understood why people go to a concert and want to hear what they can hear on a recording at home. What’s the point? Music is an alive art, and if it’s to remain alive it needs to change and grow.

    • Jim on November 7, 2023 at 6:33 pm

      Sat awesome show start to finish

  8. Traci on November 5, 2023 at 11:26 am

    WHAT TIME DID HE ACTUALLY GO ON? I don’t want to miss a single note for tonight’s show..

    • Scott McLennan on November 5, 2023 at 11:57 am

      Very close to 8 pm start time. Like 8:05

    • Chris on November 5, 2023 at 12:11 pm

      8:00PM sharp. Enjoy the show. I was there last night, and it was excellent.

  9. Anon on November 5, 2023 at 5:35 pm

    That guy was sitting directly behind me. He kept saying he loves Dylan, loves the blues, but nobody wants to hear the new stuff. Where are the anthems from the ’60s and ’70s? Over and over and over. I brought my teenage daughter and her friend so they could see a legend, and there was a family of 5 directly to my right with all the kids under 12. Those parents spent close to 500 bucks on a night out and he was ruining it. Finally, a friend he was with said, man I love you, but you have to stop. He was quiet for one song and then left with a woman. Good riddance. No respect for the artist or the rest of audience. I hope he steps on a Lego.

  10. Richard Dennis on November 6, 2023 at 11:32 am

    As a big Bob Dylan fan who has seen him 186 times (including the Orpheum in 1994), I found this review to be one of the more knowledgeable ones I have read. Also, in 186 shows, I have seen Bob do a true encore (ie. unplanned) only twice and they were both in Boston (1994 and 2001)

  11. THOMAS MCCORMICK on November 14, 2023 at 4:51 pm

    Last time I saw Dylan was with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They started with “Masters of War” and never let up. Great music. Just went to the Palace in Waterbury., CT. Except for the start of “Watching the River Flow” and when the band kicked in on “Gotta Serve,” the show was flat. No emotion. He just went through the set list and collected the dough. I would not recommend paying more than $25.00 buck to go see such a show and that would be to hear a great band, not Dylan.

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