Bob Dylan Gets All Meta at Providence Concert
Bob Dylan on June 21, 2017
Maybe it was the death of Chuck Berry. Maybe it was the Nobel prize. Maybe it was the current change in the political climate in this country. Whatever the reason, Bob Dylan brought a special surprise guest when he played at the Providence Performing Arts Center on Wednesday evening - Vintage Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s one-hour-and-forty-minute performance with his crack band proved that, even after turning 76 last month, he’s still searching, still changing, still growing. Yet after hiding under an invisible fedora over the past few years, focusing on the Great American Songbook, Dylan came out rocking, and continued to do so most of the evening, while keeping one foot in the pre-rock era.
After rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball’s short introductory instrumental, the band launched into a galloping “Things Have Changed,” with Dylan posing like his high school hero Little Richard, circa 1957, standing at the piano, pounding on the keyboard, rocking out in a light colored suit. He sat down for a countryish take on “Don’t Think Twice,” but was up again for a smoking version of “Highway 61 Revisited.” I had always been amused by the final verse, about a “roving gambler” ready to start another war, with support from a morally bankrupt, money-hungry “promoter,” thinking something like that would be unthinkable in my lifetime. On Wednesday, it took on a whole other meaning, uncomfortably close to home.
Then Dylan got all meta on us. After three of his own vintage classics, Dylan moved center stage in crooner mode, performing Frank Sinatra’s kiss-off to Columbia records, “Why Try To Change Me Now.” Although this version was as heartfelt as anything we heard all night, the abrupt change in gears here was startling. Dylan, the magician, was reinventing himself right in front of his audience, asking them to accept him as he was, even though change is one of the few constants of his 50-plus year career. It may have actually been double-meta, now that I think about it.
For the next 14 songs before the encores, only one was vintage 60’s Dylan. His staccato take on the epic “Desolation Row,” a recent addition to the setlist, may have been his submission to prove his worthiness as a Nobel Laureate, performed with the same trademarked, inscrutable delivery he’s had for decades. When he sings, his voice draws you in, and keeps you hanging on every utterance, as if under his spell.
However, it was Dylan’s confidence in the last 20 years of his recent catalogue that made up the bulk of the show. His voice was in great shape, just slightly rough around the edges, the words easy to decipher. Its coarseness complimented and accentuated a pair of vocal cords that have been through the mill on the journey to get him here to sing these songs. Among the many other highlights were “Summer Days,” rearranged as a country hoedown, and a venomous “Love Sick” with some updated lyrics. The phrasing on the tracks from “Tempest” - his last collection of original compositions from 2012 - was immaculate, alternatingly carefree (“Duquesne Whistle”), ominous (“Pay in Blood,” “Early Roman Kings”), and wistful (“Soon After Midnight,” “Long and Wasted Years.”) Anyone who thinks he can’t sing doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.
The same commitment Dylan gave to his own material was given to the half-dozen other standards mixed into the set, and made for a nice change of pace from his unrelentingly bleak criticisms of the human condition. While most of these selections deal with heartache, they do so in a softer, nostalgic glow from a more romantically innocent time. Dylan shapeshifted in and out of crooner mode with ease. It was a substitute, in a way, for the acoustic numbers of yore.
If you were wondering why Dylan would choose to cover a classic such as “Stormy Weather,” when so many iconic covers have been recorded over the decades, including Etta James, Billie Holiday, and, most notably, Lena Horne, the reason is simple. When Dylan performs it, other versions are forgotten. The song is stripped from its museum status, and appreciated anew.
Another highlight was a frenetic take on “That Old Black Magic,” a showstopper that perfectly accentuated drummer George Receli’s style. Dylan’s band, which also includes bassist Tony Garnier, lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, has reached a new level of musical telepathy. The current arrangements have more space between the instruments, somewhat reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, circa 1972. By effortlessly switching from rock to country swing to Chicago blues to standards and back again, of all the vintage acts currently on the road, only Paul McCartney’s current lineup could as accurately replicate almost a century’s worth of music and make it sound fresh and authentic.
For the encore, Dylan marched forward, up to his own, distant past. First up was a song that could have defined him, a lilting version of the timeless anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” followed by what could be his own theme song (as he once referred to it), “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Like many of the songs performed on Wednesday, it also took on a new meaning in this context. Who doesn’t understand what’s going on? It could be critics, it could be fans. It could be politicians from the left and the right. It could be the American public, or the international community. Don’t look now, it could be you or me.
Some fans are missing the point of seeing Dylan in 2017. It’s not about whether he played guitar (he didn’t), sang “Tangled Up In Blue” (he didn’t), or performed any standards back-to-back (he did). All that matters is whether Dylan is into what he’s doing, or not. When he’s focused, when he’s in the zone, he is untouchable. When he’s not, it can be disappointing. It’s all part of the journey. On Wednesday, he was on, and the journey’s not over yet.
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