By Michael Lello
Thanks to his status as a musical and cultural icon — even the word “legendary” seems to somehow fall short — you could not be blamed for thinking of Bob Dylan as someone belonging to the past. If you hadn’t been to one of his recent concerts, you could be forgiven for expecting it to be nothing more than a pleasant trip down memory lane featuring a beloved yet way-past-his-prime star coasting on reputation and cashing in on a timeworn catalog.
Granted, Wednesday night’s Dylan outing at Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain, from its opening shot of “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” through the triumphant encores “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower,” was heavy on history. But Dylan is no nostalgia act. He’s a vibrant, ever-evolving artist whose performance at the Scranton venue was infused with a sense of crackling emotion and urgency, whether he and his band were playing songs that are nearly 50 years old or selections from his brilliant recent albums.
Dylan, clad in a dark suit with white trim and a wide-brimmed white hat, led the band into “Rainy Day Women” from his spot behind a single keyboard instrument at stage left, alternately lifting his legs in a little jig while the audience sang the familiar refrain of “Everybody must get stoned.” He followed up with another oldie, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” stripping away some of the tenderness of the original version and instead delivering the song in a more admonishing tone. Dylan’s often raspy voice was a benefit here, as he sounded like he had gargled with razor blades before spitting out “no, no, no” with palpable disdain.
Dylan stepped out from behind the keyboard to center stage for “Things Have Changed,” a newer song from 2000 sporting a new arrangement, before Stu Kimball’s jangling acoustic guitar signaled the familiar “Tangled Up In Blue.” Dylan gesticulated in the easygoing manner of a storyteller as he sang.
After a smoky rendition of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” from 2009’s “Together Through Life” with Dylan on electric guitar, he offered three consecutive songs from 2001’s “Love And Theft”: “Mississippi,” like “Things Have Changed,” a newish song already sporting a fresh arrangement which turned the song into more of a lilting and playful affair; “High Water (For Charley Patton),” with Donnie Herron on banjo and Tony Garnier switching to upright bass; and a rollicking “Summer Days,” with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton dishing out some tasty Western sing and rockabilly riffs.
The surrealistic “Desolation Row” clocked in at nearly 10 minutes before Dylan and company ratcheted up the energy level with a spirited and driving “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan taking an aggressive and somewhat psychedelic organ solo. Near the song’s conclusion, the band shifted into an even higher gear; Dylan has a knack for picking his spots to turn up the intensity and his dynamic band, which also includes drummer George Recile, is always right there with him.
Next up was a quasi-countrified “Simple Twist Of Fate,” where Dylan played two simple, raw and well-placed electric guitar solos and the band swelled in a crescendo at the end. A fun and uptempo “Thunder On The Mountain” from 2006’s “Modern Times” album was next, with Sexton playing some succinct and effective solos.
“Ballad Of A Thin Man” has become a late-set, show-stopping song, and Wednesday’s version was possibly the concert’s high point. Grasping the mic stand at the front of the stage, Dylan snarled like a deranged preacher, commanding the audience’s attention while his band provided the appropriately foreboding backdrop. His harmonica solos all evening were in fine form, but he seemed to breathe extra fire on this one.
“Thin Man” was a perfect way to end the set proper before Dylan and the other musicians returned for the relatively predictable yet nonetheless enjoyable encores of the anthemic “Like A Rolling Stone,” which provided plenty of audience sing-along opportunities, and the ominous “All Along The Watchtower,” before which Dylan addressed the crowd for the first and only time, saying “Thank you friends” and jovially introducing the band members.
The influence Bob Dylan has had on generations of musicians and listeners cannot be overestimated. But shows like Wednesday’s are remarkable not just because you are in the presence of a living legend, but also because you get to witness Dylan’s ongoing development as an artist, which is remarkable at this latter stage in his career. Dylan, obviously, has nothing left to prove, but thankfully he performs like it still matters. And because of that approach, it does.