Bob Dylan’s live show still an interesting act to catch

Adam Perry

On Oct. 22 at
Magness Arena on the campus of Denver University, my daughter experienced her
first Bob Dylan concert — from the womb. It took 19 years on Earth for me to
see a Dylan show — at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh — and the old man’s Denver
show last week was my fifth. I’ve now seen Dylan play in four states, but the
current version of his touring band, and the 68-year old’s contributions to
their eclectic performances, was something totally unexpected.

Launching into
an explosive version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile” (from 1967’s
Blonde On Blonde), it was clear Dylan and his band have
their fire back. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, a highlight of Dylan’s touring
outfit in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s who recently re-joined Dylan after a
couple years away, lent the kind of dynamic improvisation and stage-presence
that Dylan’s shows had been missing since Sexton and multi-instrumentalist
Larry Campbell left for other projects. At times, Dylan chose to do an
instrumental verse and just let Sexton fly, which was almost always exciting
and entertaining, especially with brilliant young New Orleans-bred drummer
George Recile supporting and responding to Sexton’s solos.

However, what
really struck me was Dylan’s unprecedented foray into Vegas-style lead-singer
mode. For most of this decade, Dylan has played the bulk of his shows from
behind an electric piano, but on about half of the songs he sang in Denver,
Dylan chose to play neither guitar nor piano, opting instead to stand front and
center, singing and erratically dancing while his band played. When you combine
how Dylan squats, sways, gestures wildly with one arm and generally utilizes
weird and hilarious mannerisms with his completely unpredictable (and sometimes
awful) enunciations of incredible lyrics, the result is something you have to
see and hear in person to believe. Amidst this spectacular quasi-karaoke
incarnation of Bob Dylan, or perhaps because of it, my partner’s giddy exclamation
of “look at his little knees moving!” was perhaps the highlight of the evening,
along with our daughter literally kicking
along to several songs
inside her mother’s belly.

Dylan only
played two songs (“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” and “Jolene”) from his latest
original album, April’s
Through Life
, and thankfully
declined to perform anything from his strange new Christmas collection, which
is as captivating as it is horrifying. As usual, Dylan played completely
re-worked versions of some of the best songs in his massive catalog, including
versions of “Cold Irons Bound” and “Honest With Me” that featured arrangements
and attitudes reminiscent of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” “Highway 61
Revisited,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “High Water” and other songs smartly
featured the kind of thick, penetrating swing only a drummer like Recile can
pull off, and “It Ain’t Me Babe” (which was virtually undistinguishable until
the chorus) featured Dylan on guitar, filling in the instrumental gaps with his
charmingly oddball idea of improvised melodies.

It’s thrilling
how Dylan chooses to be challenged and inspired by Sexton and Recile every
night as part of what he does for a living; looking at Dylan in his big black
feathered fedora in those deep moments, singing lines like “people don’t
die/they just miss the boat,” it was hard not to be amazed that in two years
we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his eponymous Columbia Records