The Xcel Energy Center audience were firmly asked not to use phones — at all — so it was a darkened mass of fans who surrounded the simply lit stage at one end of the arena. There were also no video screens, so all faces were turned directly towards the man at the piano, testing us with new interpretations of numbers from his iconic songbook. There was a sense that we weren’t so much watching Bob Dylan as he was watching us.
He’s seen a lot, and his lyrics evoke visions far older than even his own; as a new book documents, his allusions stretch back to antiquity. His three most recent studio albums all contain exclusively interpretations of midcentury standards, so his set often recalled the sensibility of a man even older than Dylan’s own 76 years.
Paradoxically, though, Dylan also remains more focused on his newest material than any other major star of his generation. He celebrated his 30th anniversary as a recording artist with an all-star concert in 1992, and over two-thirds of the songs he sang last night have entered his repertoire since then.
Still, for an artist who’s often sought to distance himself from his period of most fervent acclaim, the 1960s are echoing much more strongly on this tour than when Dylan last passed through town, in 2014. In part that’s because he’s now playing a healthy handful of songs from that decade (in 2014, each night included only two — two — songs from the ’60s), but it has even more to do with his choice of opener.
Mavis Staples, a fellow living legend whose style is diametrically opposed to Dylan’s inscrutable stage presence, opened the show very promptly — pushing the announced start time of 7:30 — with a blast of powerful soul and exuberant charisma. She took us right back to the roots of her long friendship with Dylan, reminiscing about marching with MLK along with her family.
Staples even got a portion of the largely sedate, typically older crowd on its feet by the crescendo of “Freedom Highway,” a song written by her late father, the great Pops Staples. “I was there!” she declared emphatically. “I was there! I was there! I’m a living witness. I’m a soldier!”
Referring playfully to the headliner as “Bobby,” she told us to watch out for this “real groovy move” he has. That would have been a little hard for most of the attendees to make out, but no matter. “This is like our second home,” Staples said, giving Dylan’s own home state more recognition than he would. “Minneapolis! Minnesota! St. Paul!”
Not that we expected anything more from Dylan, with whom Minnesota has been in a mutual love-hate relationship for over half a century. Some may have been hoping for a bit of banter — which does happen, albeit rarely — or a Tom Petty cover, like the one he did last week. I wondered if he’d pay tribute to Fats Domino, who just died yesterday and whose piano-driven style must especially resonate with latter-day Dylan. Or, if not, maybe a little guitar work?
Nope, nope, nope, and nope. Dylan’s surprises were the kind of surprises he’s always specialized in: finding new layers of meaning in songs we thought we knew. That’s at the heart of his Great American Songbook project, selections from which he peppered throughout the show, getting up and cradling a mic stand like a talisman while he sang the likes of “September of My Years” and “Autumn Leaves.”
Yeah, heavy. There are some relatively light selections on his recent cover albums, but that’s not the mood he’s brought on tour. His originals were similarly grim: “Desolation Row,” anyone? “Ballad of a Thin Man”? Dylan and Staples suggested the yin and yang of America, whether in 1967 or in 2017: joyful, resolute hope versus apocalyptic cynicism. The mood was broken, a bit, by a couple of newer rockers: a hoedown-flavored “Summer Days” and a thumping “Thunder on the Mountain.”
Dylan is justifiably proud of the near-symphonic scope he’s able to achieve with his five-man band, and on this tour he’s reinventing his catalog yet again. Maybe someday there will be a Bootleg Series release dedicated solely to the various permutations of “Tangled Up in Blue,” an often-performed classic that became a sinister march. “Things Have Changed” was also percussive and menacing; the set opener was followed by “It Ain’t Me Babe,” driven by drummer George Receli’s steady tom.
“Highway 61 Revisited” saw Dylan’s most ostentatious piano work of the night, with wild runs soaring above the band while the singer snarled the lyrics. It was one of many occasions last night when Dylan’s singing recalled his aggressive approach of the 1970s, almost daring us to throw his songs out of our hearts. Sorry, Bob: we’re sticking around, and it looks like you are too.
Bob Dylan setlist
Things Have Changed (Wonder Boys soundtrack, 2000)
It Ain’t Me Babe (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Why Try to Change Me Now? (Shadows in the Night, 2015)
Summer Days (Love and Theft, 2001)
Melancholy Mood (Fallen Angels, 2016)
Honest with Me (Love and Theft, 2001)
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
Once Upon a Time (Triplicate, 2017)
Pay in Blood (Tempest, 2012)
Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
September of My Years (Triplicate, 2017)
Early Roman Kings (Tempest, 2012)
Soon After Midnight (Tempest, 2012)
Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Thunder on the Mountain (Modern Times, 2006)
Autumn Leaves (Shadows in the Night, 2015)
Ballad of a Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Blowin’ in the Wind (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
Lucky Old Sun (Shadows in the Night, 2015)