Music Review: Bob Dylan at UMass-Lowell, Tsongas Center

The emotional peak of the entire night was Bob Dylan’s gently understated performance of “What Good Am I?” from 1989’s Oh Mercy.

By Adam Ellsworth

Bob Dylan — he’s not interested in putting on a “greatest hits” show.

Paul McCartney tickets sell out too fast? Stones tickets too expensive?

Well, there’s always Bob Dylan.

Literally. . . there’s always Bob Dylan. Dylan’s Tuesday night performance at UMass-Lowell’s Tsongas Center was his third visit to the area in the past 20 months and his fourth since 2010. And that’s only counting the times he’s played Boston or Lowell; he’s also played Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Western Massachusetts in recent years and months.

Perhaps it’s due to the high frequency of Dylan’s area shows that the Tsongas Center was, at best, only half full Tuesday night. The spotty attendance made his November 2012 concert at TD Garden look like a full house, and at that show, the upper balconies were closed off and anyone who had tickets for up there was given new seats in the lower bowl.

The low attendance can, perhaps, also be attributed to the fact that people have finally caught on to what Bob Dylan is up to . . . that he’s not interested in putting on a “greatest hits” show. Even when he does play a “hit,” it bares only a passing resemblance to the version that’s playing on some classic rock radio station at this very moment. If you’re not already into Dylan, you probably won’t like him live, and if you are into Dylan, you may like him live even less.

When it comes to new arrangements for old songs, and a desire to play songs that are lesser known to the casual fan, that’s certainly nothing new for Dylan. That could be said of just about any Dylan concert for the past decade at least. What was particularly interesting Tuesday night at Tsongas though was that Dylan seemed to push this direction even further than usual. Three changes to the “typical” Dylan set stood out: first, a quarter of his 16 song set was made up of songs off his latest album, 2012’s Tempest; second, only three songs in the set were from the 1960s; third, and most interesting, none of those ‘60s songs were “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Despite where rock concerts tend to be held, they aren’t sporting events, and a reliance on what are, essentially, “stats,” isn’t normally the best way to understand what transpired. But in this case, the above “stats” tell a fascinating story.

Starting with the higher percentage of Tempest songs in the set, this is actually more surprising than it might seem. On the one hand, it makes sense. People don’t buy albums (whether these albums are vinyl records, CDs, or electronic files) as much as they used to, so when artists tour, they try to give at least a little push to the new stuff in the hopes that sales will increase.

The thing is, Dylan doesn’t normally do this. He doesn’t even tie tours to albums or albums to tours. He just tours (as we’ve already established, all the time), and then every few years he puts out a new album. That new album is always good if not great, but its existence doesn’t really trouble the set list. In November at TD Garden, for instance, the only Tempest track to make the set was “Early Roman Kings” (also played Tuesday night in Lowell). In August 2011 at Boston’s House of Blues, only “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” (also played Tuesday night) was played off of Together Through Life, which, though more than two years old at the time, was Dylan’s most recently released album of new material (assuming we don’t count Christmas in the Heart, which, for our purposes at least, it’s best we don’t).

So four songs from Tempest Tuesday night was unexpected, though not necessarily unwelcome. “Soon After Midnight,” was downright sweet sounding, with pedal-steel and Dylan taking to the piano for the first of many times. It was immediately followed by “Early Roman Kings,” complete with the same “I’m A Man” backing that makes it a standout on Tempest. If anything though, it was heavier than the recorded version, with bigger sounding drums than are featured on the album. It’s a live keeper, lyrically as well as musically. “I ain’t dead yet/My bell still rings./I keep my fingers crossed/Like the Early Roman Kings,” is both a middle finger to anyone in the audience (and to the many people not in the audience) who think Dylan’s past it and also a pretty realistic comment on mortality and longevity, and the fact that there’s at least a little bit of luck involved.

After a jump in the time machine for the 1975 Blood on the Tracks standout “Tangled Up in Blue,” it was back to the present day for “Pay in Blood” (if there’s one Dylan “classic” that is actually better in its current arrangement than its original—great as the original was—it’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” Always a highlight of his recent shows).

“Pay in Blood,” on Tempest, is a slinky rocker. It’s got balls for sure (“I pay in blood, but not my own”) and Dylan’s vocal delivery is, to put it mildly, “badass.” But the song is almost too fun to take the threats seriously. There’s a specific target (or targets) in the song, and we listeners are safely on the sidelines. Tuesday night, this wasn’t the case. The performance of “Pay in Blood” was positively menacing. It was slowed down and had an “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” (the Marvin Gaye version of course) feel to it. When Dylan sang, “I’ve got something in my pocket/Make your eye balls swim/I got dogs that’ll tear you/Limb from limb,” it was hard to not take him seriously.

“Scarlet Town,” the last of the four Tempest songs of the night and the penultimate song of the main set, was more faithful to its recorded version. Then again, that version has more than enough menace in it to begin with.

With four songs from Tempest in the set, something had to give, and at Tsongas Tuesday night, that something was “the ‘60s.” A quick look at this year’s previous set lists—Tuesday night’s Lowell concert was only Dylan’s fourth show of 2013—shows that this is becoming par for the course. It’s not really safe to compare concerts, as unlike many of his contemporaries, Dylan isn’t afraid to mix things up, and he doesn’t stick to any one set. But still, patterns can emerge, and, for the sake of argument, it’s interesting to note that at TD Garden last November, Dylan played eight songs (more than half of the set) from the decade he’s most associated with. At House of Blues in 2011, he played seven ‘60s songs in a 17-song set.

Tuesday night at Tsongas, only “Visions of Johanna,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” made the cut. Each was met with huge applause, and each proved itself worthy of such a reaction.

“Visions of Johanna,” from 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, came right in the middle of the set. Dylan played it from the piano—for most of this century Dylan has played little, or no, guitar live. Up until last year, he mostly played electric organ and in some cases, played no instrument other than a very wailing harmonica and acted as a true frontman. In 2012, he made the switch to piano, in place of the organ, and that’s what he played for most of Tuesday night’s set—and it was the first time all night that he truly shined on the instrument. Even had he not, his vocals would have made “Visions of Johanna” worth singling out. Whereas the words are simply released, breathed really, as if in a dream, on the original recording, on Tuesday night each word was emphasized. They were percussive, like Dylan’s piano playing. It wasn’t necessarily an improvement on the original, but it was an interesting interpretation.

Bob Dylan — Unlike many of his contemporaries, he isn’t afraid to mix things up.

“All Along the Watchtower,” from 1967’s John Wesley Harding, closed the main set (you’ll get the ‘60s folks, but you’ll have to wait for them). Like a lot of Dylan’s ‘60s work, the song is more famous for a cover version than for Dylan’s original, but live, in the twenty-first century, it’s hard to argue that Dylan hasn’t stolen it back. Tuesday night, it started with an upbeat acoustic strum and with Dylan at the piano. It built in intensity as it went, and by the end of the song, it almost (not quite, but almost) matched the Hendrix version for electricity.

With “All Along the Watchtower” complete, Dylan and his band put down their instruments and lined up at the front of the stage, soaking up the applause. Without a word, they left, only to return shortly after for 1965’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” At the completion of that song, they again put down their instruments, lined up, and basked in the glow of a small, but very appreciative audience. Once upon a time, Dylan would take the microphone and introduce the band at this point, but he doesn’t even do that anymore. He hadn’t spoken a word to the audience all night, and there was no reason to start now. He and the band simply left the stage, the lights came up, and the audience streamed out.

Just three ‘60s songs and four songs from Tempest leaves a lot of room for more, so it’s worth mentioning what else Dylan played Tuesday night.

The concert opened with 1999’s “Things Have Changed,” which they have. “Love Sick,” the opening track to 1997’s Time Out of Mind came next, and it should be noted that that album won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Typically, that’s not much of a distinction (see Sons, Mumford &), but if nothing else, it shows what everyone should already know: Dylan really is more than just a ‘60s icon.

2001’s “High Water (For Charly Patton)” and 1983’s “Blind Willie McTell” (which wasn’t officially released until 1991) paid tribute to two of Dylan’s forefathers, while “Spirit on the Water” and “Thunder on the Mountain,” showcased some of the best from 2006’s Modern Times. On the former song, the music noticeably picked up when Dylan sang, “You think I’m over the hill/You think I’m past my prime/Let me see what you got/We can have a whoppin’ good time.” Once again, Dylan doesn’t mind poking those in his audience who doubt him.

Dylan showed off his harmonica skills on “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” from 2009’s Together Through Life (if you take nothing else away from a live Dylan performance, it’s that he can really play the harmonica), but the emotional peak of the entire night was the gently understated performance of “What Good Am I?” from 1989’s Oh Mercy. It is commonly believed that Dylan went wrong somewhere around 1979’s Slow Train Coming (when he became a born-again Christian), and he never recovered until 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Arguably, the turnaround really began as early as Oh Mercy, as a song like “What Good Am I?” shows.

Bob Dylan — Why can’t we just let him do his thing without questioning him?

“What good am I if I’m like all the rest?” Dylan sang Tuesday night, as if any of us would believe that Bob Dylan was ever like all the rest. Bob Dylan is nothing if not a genuine American original.

It was a night of solid performances of some solid (if at times lesser known) songs, and it seems like a shame to end by noting a certain song that he didn’t play, but doing so might be instructive. As noted above, Dylan did not play “Like a Rolling Stone” Tuesday night. In fact, he didn’t play the song at the three 2013 performances that preceded Lowell either. It’s not like this song is Dylan’s only claim to fame. He’s got a pretty big repertoire to say the least. But no matter what changes he throws into his set list on a yearly, monthly, or daily basis, he always plays “Like a Rolling Stone.” Okay, maybe not “always,” but certainly “mostly” and certainly, over the past five years or so, it’s been a given that Dylan would pull that song out, a fact confirmed by a scroll through the set lists available on his official website. It’s a little odd for him to suddenly stop playing it. What’s that all about?

Poor Bob. Why do we always assume there must be a “reason?” Why can’t we just let him do his thing without questioning him? Unfortunately, that’s not the way the game works. So here’s a thought, one which may be totally unrelated to Dylan’s decision to not play “Like a Rolling Stone” but fun to consider anyway . . .

In a few weeks, The Rolling Stones will once again raid our shores, and our wallets, for a coast to coast tour. Not counting the few anniversary shows they played late last year, this will be the first time the Stones have toured since 2007. They have exactly two new songs to play since last time, and the least expensive tickets available cost $85. The next level is $150, and it goes from there until you get to $600 for a ticket to a rock and roll concert.

Since The Rolling Stone wrapped up their “Bigger Bang” tour in August 2007, Bob Dylan has played more than 500 concerts all over the world. Since The Rolling Stones released their last album, 2005’s A Bigger Bang, Dylan has released three albums (and that’s not counting a fourth comprised of Christmas songs, because, well, never mind). Tickets for The Rolling Stones cost upward to $600. Floor tickets for Bob Dylan at the Tsongas Center cost $48. In 2013, is there anyone who is less like a Rolling Stone than Bob Dylan?

Anyway, it’s just a thought. The tour rolls on until May, at which point additional dates will undoubtedly be announced. Maybe he’ll start playing “Like a Rolling Stone” again soon, just to mess with us.

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