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.
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.