Watching a living legend perform live in concert can be an exhilarating or a disappointing experience, mainly depending on the expectations you bring along with you. When it comes to Bob Dylan, it’s pretty difficult not to expect greatness, but tempering your conceptions of the man is definitely necessary.
Yes, he is still making vital music, and yes, he can still bring it live, but he’s also close to 70, and he’s been touring for so long, it’s no surprise his voice isn’t holding up quite like you’d hope. That inimitable growl that his voice has evolved (devolved?) into certainly adds a new element of rock ‘n’ roll grittiness to his classic work, but there was no denying Dylan was struggling toward the end of his set Friday night at QuikTrip Park in Grand Prairie, Texas. Still, Dylan was clearly enjoying himself, his band was sounding tight and the seemingly inevitable sound glitches that seem to crop up at these kinds of shows never presented themselves, all lending to an immensely enjoyable experience.
The ballpark tour Dylan is currently on gives all concertgoers a general admission ticket, allowing them to opt either for a spot in the stands or right up in front of the stage. Surprisingly, there were relatively few fans willing to stand, making it easy to snag a position only about 15 feet from the stage despite arriving late and missing most of the opening act, whose name I did not catch.
Clearly, Dylan was not the evening’s only attraction, with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp offering introductory sets. Nelson’s was amiable and longtime fan-friendly, filled mostly with recognizable favorites and pleasant, if not especially interesting, crowd interaction. Mellencamp’s energetic set provided a nice counterpoint to Nelson’s ambling one.
When Dylan took the stage though, it became obvious who most fans were really excited about. Kicking off the evening with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” it would be the only number Dylan performed from arguably his premier album, Blonde on Blonde, in a set dominated by his most recent records, Modern Times and Together Through Life. Half of the songs came from these two albums, a couple others from various projects from the past decade and the rest an assortment of ‘60s favorites.
It was a set — like most of Dylan’s these days, I suspect — designed to keep fans of the old material placated while reminding audiences that he still feels he’s making quality music. And he decidedly is — the new material definitely stands up well next to the old material. It doesn’t hurt that he’s adapted the old stuff to a similar rock-oriented sound that the new songs share. Friday night, it was all rock ‘n’ roll; there was no folky, singer-songwriter Dylan on display.
Now, the common complaints I’ve seen emanating from recent Dylan shows could certainly be attributed here. He doesn’t interact with the audience (a brief mention of his band members, but otherwise no in-between song chatter), his voice leaves a lot to be desired, and he’s mangled his classics beyond all recognition. Indeed, it would have been near impossible to identify “Like a Rolling Stone” without knowing the lyrics, as he didn’t bother to sing anything near the original melody.
But you know what, Dylan’s really got nothing left to prove. If he wants to reinterpret his songs, who’s to say that’s not his business to do so? As for interacting with the crowd, well, sure it would be nice. But that hardly fits the Dylan persona. And even though his voice has clearly seen better days, he still knows how to put on an exciting and musically solid show. As Dylan sang on “Spirit on the Water,” “You think I'm over the hill / You think I'm past my prime / Let me see what you got / We can have a whopping good time.” Dylan is definitely past his prime, but he’s got that good time part down just fine.
Complete set list:
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”
“Don't Think Twice, It's All Right”
“Things Have Changed”
“Spirit On The Water”
“The Levee's Gonna Break”
“If You Ever Go To Houston”
“Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”
“I Feel A Change Comin' On”
“Highway 61 Revisited”
“Thunder On The Mountain”
“Like A Rolling Stone”
“All Along The Watchtower”