Photo courtesy of John Buckley
There was massive outcry from Bob Dylan’s fans when during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival he enlisted Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to play electric guitar. Dylan himself “plugged in” not long after, and even though it led to two of the greatest records of all time (Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde) fans decried Dylan’s switch from acoustic to electric, even though the writing had been on the wall for some time.
Causing less of an uproar, apparently, is Dylan’s fairly recent decision to abandon guitar altogether. Not once during his 90 minute set at Verizon Center on Tuesday did he strum a guitar, sticking primarily to piano and occasionally blowing his harmonica. His formidable harmonica playing was the closest he got to sounding like “old” Dylan, as his voice, which was the focus of so many reviews of his most recent album, Tempest, often seemed to fail him in concert as much as it does on the album.
Which isn’t to say his performance was bad – even after 50 years of performing, Dylan still seems to enjoy himself, even though he rarely acknowledges he’s performing in front of an actual audience. His band was stellar, old songs are reworked in both good and bad ways, his vocal flourishes – such as adding the occasional “how ‘bout that” and “I’ll tell ya” to lyrics everyone knows – bring a smile, and the riverboat gambler appearance he’s cultivated since the late 90s (wide-brimmed hat, bolo tie, pants with a flaming red stripe down the side) make him look like the legend he is.
Kicking off his set with a jumpy “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Dylan stood and played keyboard, before taking a seat at the piano for a very different sounding “To Ramona.” The contemplative acoustic song became a playful rock number. It was a theme that would be revisited with all his older material – each song was dusted off and given a backbeat/shuffling blues riff that would have made them fit on any of Dylan’s recent albums. The more recent Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” was kicked up, with Dylan abandoning the piano to dance about on stage and mug for Mark Knopfler, who opened the show and joined Dylan for two songs. Even the classics “Chimes of Freedom” and “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” were altered to soft blues rock songs, the latter sounding more like Edie Brickell’s 1989 version than Dylan’s own. His only encore, an energetic version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” featured a violin and a great deal of crowd help on the vocals.
Dylan has always played with the lyrics of “Tangled up in Blue” and this show was no exception. The song sounded fresh, and the crowd strained to hear whatever lyrics Dylan felt like singing, such as when “lord knows I’ve paid some dues” became “listening to the blues,” and the entire third verse was gutted and reworked.
His newer material shone as well. “Early Roman Kings,” could have fit in at a Memphis bar, as the repetitive blues riff - which sounds like a slowed-down “Highway 61,” (played four songs later) - and Dylan’s honky-tonk piano matched perfectly. He also performed “Soon After Midnight” from Tempest, marking the first time the song has ever been played live.
Knopfler’s opening set was delightful, a perfect mixture of the clean blues that made him famous with Dire Straits, and the newer, Irish/Scottish/Celtic sound of his recent solo work. After kicking off with the rocker “What It is,” Knopfler played three songs from Privateering, the wonderful double-album he released earlier this year. Fans appeared to get overly excited at the acoustic intro of the title track, perhaps thinking it was Dire Straits’ “The Man’s Too Strong,” but in fact Knopfler only went to the Dire Straits catalog once, closing his set with the hit “So Far Away.” Knopfler’s eight-piece band, which played no less than 20 instruments during the course of the evening including uillean pipes, Irish whistles, and bouzoukis, was nothing short of spectacular.