Bob Dylan defies expectations at the Academy of Music
Bob Dylan | Photo by Jon Landman

Bob Dylan opened up a three night stint at the Academy of Music on Friday night, and it was equal parts surreal and magical. As my concert going companion said, it was like watching “Dylan covering Tom Waits covering Dylan,” and as Dylan stood center stage, in a white suit and white hat, singing a selection of songs that barely touched on the familiar hits of his past, he looked like a ragtime era cowboy crooner.

As a musician, Dylan’s career of 35 studio albums must be a heavy weight to carry. For fans, it sets up equally heavy expectations. During his first night at the Academy of Music, he defied those expectations by focusing on material from many of his recent albums. Six songs from the 19 song set list came from his 2012 release, Tempest, the highlights of which included a brawny version of “Early Roman Kings” reminiscent of Muddy Waters “I’m A Man,” as well as  “Scarlet Town,” and the gentle “Soon After Midnight.”

It’s well known that Dylan’s shows over the years have not been greatest hits shows. That ended a long time ago. Over time, Dylan has rearranged many of the songs from his back catalog, as was the case during his show at the Academy, during which he played four of the “classics” – two from Blood On The Tracks (“Simple Twist of Fate,” and “Tangled Up In Blue”) and “She Belongs To Me” from Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan’s musical recasting of the old songs in the context of the newer material sounded fantastic. The old songs match his “newer” style. After all, this is the guy who sang “gonna change my way of thinking / make myself a different set of rules.”

Of the recent material, other highlights of the show, performed during two sets with an intermission, included the shuffling dark blues of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin,'” (from 2009’s Together Through Life), and a blistering version of “Love Sick,” from his 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, which he won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for in 1998. Dylan played two songs from soundtracks; he opened with “Things Have Changed” from the soundtrack to Wonder Boys, and played “Waiting For You” from the 2002 soundtrack to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood towards the end of the first set.

Throughout the two hour (plus) show, every song was performed exquisitely, and powerfully controlled by his remarkable band – guitarists Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton, the rhythm section of drummer George Receli and bassist Tony Guarnier, and multi-instrumentalist (and former BR5-49 member) Donnie Herron, who was outstanding on mandolin, pedal steel, banjo, and violin. The sound at the Academy of Music was pristine.

Dylan hasn’t played guitar for years, but he did play piano on a number of songs, digging into the tunes with a restrained, sometimes awkward showmanship. On most songs, each one of the band members eyes were locked into their master’s lead, building the slow songs into folksy confessionals, and taking the bluesy songs to near spiritual highs. While Dylan’s voice has grown coarse and gravely, and has become even more limited in range over the years, his harmonica playing has not. It’s still as sweet and melodic as ever, and served to counter his fragile vocals.

For his encore, Dylan sat at the piano and broke into a barely recognizable, yet carefree version of the fourth “classic” of the night, “Blowin’ In The Wind.” He closed the show with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Stay With Me,” an early nugget from The Chairman of The Board’s Sinatra ’65 compilation album.

Things Have Changed
She Belongs To Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Workingman’s Blues #2
Waiting For You
Duquesne Whistle
Pay In Blood
Tangled Up In Blue
Love Sick
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist Of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Forgetful Heart
Spirit On The Water
Scarlet Town
Soon After Midnight
Long And Wasted Years
Blowin’ In The Wind
Stay With Me (Frank Sinatra cover)

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