Everything about Bob Dylan's show at the Brady Theater in Tulsa was classic. Everything, that is, but the music.
The announcer’s throwback introduction, the stadium seats that are, in all likelihood, older than I am, and the show’s simple lighting and stage setup, all recalled pictures I’ve seen in books and magazines of Dylan’s tours in the late sixties.
But what came out of the speakers that night was definitely not exclusively from the Unmoved Mover’s heyday. Rather, the 67-year old chose to dust off a career’s worth of oddball tracks to play a 17-song set, sprinkling half of 2007’s impressive Modern Times throughout, and topping the night off with a couple of fan favorites.
In predictable Dylan fashion, a dapperly-dressed band re-arranged every song in the set to sound more like the most recent Dylan release, Modern Times. This formula boded well for most of the performance, though it made for a tough time with a couple of songs.
Dubbed The Never Ending Tour, Dylan’s been playing shows with his current band since 2005. The group is anchored by bassist Tony Garnier, but its real strength is in Denny Freeman and Stu Kimball’s red-dirt guitar licks, allowing time for the old geezer to rest his voice.
And what a voice it is. Most find Dylan’s singing… difficult to listen to. In old age, it seems he can only manage to gasp out his wildcat yelps, sour-milk gurgles, and sandpaper gratings in small doses. This seemed to alter the song arrangement, with unfortunate effects on classics like “Positively 4th Street.” That great accusatory tone that made him famous just isn’t there anymore.
This isn’t to say that the show was terrible and boring. Despite nearing 70 years old, Dylan was incredibly entertaining to watch. After strumming an electric guitar on the opener, “Watching the River Flow,” he spent the rest of the evening blasting church organ rhythms from a keyboard facing his bassist. In between songs, he hilariously sauntered around stage, and could barely keep his head from bobbing all over the place.
As the evening drew to a close (at 10:15, apparently Bob had to go to bed) the lights dimmed for a moment, only to explode with energy as the band blasted “Highway 61 Revisited,” an unexpected delight. They followed this with Modern Times’s final track, “Ain’t Talkin,” a dark, mournful tale of a lonely soul, and ended the first set by tearing out “Thunder on the Mountain.” The band returned after a moment to finish the night with “Like a Rolling Stone,” and a Jimi Hendrix-ified “All Along the Watchtower.”
Every light in the Brady shut off, and the shadowy figures assembled onstage to bow. The house lights blasted back on and to the crowd’s surprised delight, Dylan stood, rocking back and forth, backed by his suited band like a security detail. They stared for a moment that seemed like forever, and walked off the stage without a word or a smile.