For those who saw Bob Dylan perform in Rochester this past August, there were few surprises last night at the Xcel Energy Center as he played to a similarly sized crowd. But for the Dylanophiles of the Twin Cities, the show served as his first metro date since he performed on election night four years earlier.
He didn’t give any political speeches this time around, instead focusing all his efforts on reimagining his hits as swampy roadhouse blues jams and skipping around the stage with his harmonica in tow, offering a timely reminder of just what a well-oiled machine Dylan and his touring band have become.
Now in his 70s, Dylan seems to be growing ever more sprightly by the day. Dressed in a wide-brimmed white hat and tuxedo pants, he would hover atop a bench behind his grand piano, legs turned outward and attention focused out into the crowd, and then hop up to grab his harmonica and frolick around to the sounds of his backing band. At times he looked like a vaudevillian marionette doll, stomping around to Charlie Sexton’s guitar with his legs spread far apart. With his band sticking to mostly the same arrangements and same songs for the last few laps of his tour, it seems Dylan is intent on expending most of his performing energy on simply being in a good mood.
He started off his set with a trio of classics — “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Don’t Think Twice,” and “Tangled Up in Blue” — plus the Oscar-winning early-2000s single “Things Have Changed,” all with opener and Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler in tow. Knopfler’s Les Paul added a rich texture to those songs, and Dylan responded in kind by weaving strands of smooth vocal melodies into his now-characteristic growls and grunts.
I can’t over-emphasize how good Dylan’s voice sounded last night. It was my ninth time seeing him perform since the early 2000s, and last night’s show was easily among the best I have seen, vocally speaking. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was especially strong, as was the rare performance of his new “Early Roman Kings” off of this year’s Tempest. Things got rougher for him as the night wore on, with “Highway 61 Revisited” so comically unrecognizable that the crowd didn’t react to it until the second verse, but he seemed to plan for that development as his songs grew darker and more confrontational as the set wore on. “Spirit on the Water” found him exploring melodies and experimenting with an almost rap-like delivery (though unfortunately it also featured his band at their weakest, plodding along to create an unspired pillow of sound), while “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” grew stronger the more he scoffed and popped his voice.
The end of the night was packed with classics once again, and though “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” were musically recognizable and stood out as crowd-pleasers, it was the encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that found him regaining his voice once again. During that song Dylan sang the higher melodies vividly and clearly, at one point reminding me of his vocal tone in the studio recording of “Lay Lady Lay.” It felt like we were momentarily glimpsing a much younger Dylan, and it was hard not to get chills.
And if you’re wondering about Bob’s thoughts on the election, he did manage to eke out a few words about it on Monday night while he played in Madison. “Here’s pretty close to what I said in Madison,” he posted later to his Facebook page. “I said from the stage that we had to play better than good tonight, that the president was here today and he’s a hard act to follow. Also, that we’re not fooled by the media and we think it’s going to be a landslide. That’s pretty much all of it.”
Last night there was no need for him to say anything more than “Thank you, friends!” That’s pretty much all of it.
Bob Dylan setlist, 11/7/12:
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (with Mark Knopfler)
Don’t Think Twice (with Mark Knopfler)
Things Have Changed (with Mark Knopfler)
Tangled Up in Blue (with Mark Knopfler)
Early Roman Kings
Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Blind Willie McTell
Highway 61 Revisited
Spirit on the Water
Thunder on the Mountain
Ballad of a Thin Man
Like a Rolling Stone
All Along the Watchtower
Blowin’ in the Wind