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Bob Dylan returns to Minnesota for a night heavy on the hits

Credit: Author's rendering

Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has taken four years to steer its way back into his home state, and Minnesota’s most famous expat seemed pleased to be back last night as he played for 7,000 fans in Rochester.

These days, when a fan goes to see Dylan they mostly know what to expect — the growly, croaking voice that may or may not hold a tune, the rollicking juke joint band that gives every classic song into a similar-sounding jaunty blues-rock feel. In that regard, there were few surprises last night, as Dylan and his crew worked through a set list heavy on the hits. But what was surprising was the visible joy Dylan exhibited as he trotted around on stage, beginning “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” on a standing electronic keyboard and then transitioning to a baby grand piano where he plunked out basic chords and melodies for much of the remainder of the set.

Piano isn’t Dylan’s strong suit, and that fact was obvious toward the first half of the set as the sound techs turned his piano mics up louder than anything else on stage. The Mayo Civic Center is similar in layout to Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, and the acoustics didn’t do much to help the band early on in the set. But as the piano found its place in the mix, Dylan fell into step with the rest of the band, and a simple solo he played during “Visions of Johanna” sounded especially divine.

“You think, I’m over the hill / Think, I’m past my prime / Let me see what you got,” Dylan teased in “Spirit on the Water,” a track off 2006’s Modern Times, seeming to enunciate the words in an exaggerated way while swiveling on his bench to look out at the crowd. He spent most of his time at the piano this way, perched on the very edge of his seat with one leg splayed out to the side, and seemed to genuinely make an effort to connect with the large audience despite his lack of stage banter. (The only thing he said, besides listing the names of his bandmates toward the end of the night, was “Thank you friends!”)

After “Spirit of the Water” it was pure groove, as the band locked in and rode a few incredible crests. “Highway 61 Revisited” took on a rockabilly feel and was almost indistinguishable, amusingly sparking a shared moment of excited recognition from the crowd about a minute into the song, while “Simple Twist of Fate” led Dylan to pick up an electric guitar for the only time in the set and rip a killer solo. 

Some of my favorite points in the night were when Dylan would wander back and forth between the piano and center stage — he wears shiny little heeled boots that give him an almost Prince-like, shuffling gait — and he seemed most animated during the climax of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” when he prowled around the stage, hunched over as he blew a fiery solo into his harmonica.

The end of the night was all hits, as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” gave way to an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Notably, he didn’t perform any songs off his new album, Tempest, but given how nervous security seemed about cameras at last night’s show, it’s possible he just didn’t want them to end up on YouTube before its release on September 11.

For how gleeful he looked as he took his last bow on stage, I’m happy for both Dylan and his home state’s fanbase that we only have to wait until November 7 to welcome him back again. 

Bob Dylan set list:

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up in Blue
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
John Brown
Summer Days
Spirit on the Water
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
Visions of Johanna
Highway 61 Revisited
Simple Twist of Fate
Thunder on the Mountain
Ballad of a Thin Man
Like a Rolling Stone
All Along the Watchtower

Encore: Blowin’ in the Wind