Saturday, November 17, 2001

Like the man said, may his songs always be sung. Bob Dylan made his initial impact more than 40 years ago by riveting audiences with an onstage presence that combined boyish charm and a world-weariness that belied his tender age.

He has grown into the part. In the past five years, America’s aging modern minstrel reversed a prolonged slump by rekindling the commitment and intensity of his live performances amid a relentless touring schedule.

Mr. Dylan, who turned 60 in May, brought it all back home again Thursday night with a powerhouse show at MCI Center that left a boisterous crowd vainly calling for more as the last thunderous notes of “All Along the Watchtower” faded two hours and 20 minutes after he first took the stage.

Comfortably flanked by his road-tested, four-member band, Mr. Dylan reveled in the playful and muscular vitality of his latest songs while unreeling often-breathtaking versions of the durable 1960s classics that made him an icon of American popular song.

He offered two of his new-folk prototypes early on: a delicate and wistful “Girl of the North Country” and the visionary chill of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The latter was among several selections with war as a theme; the relatively obscure “John Brown,” Mr. Dylan’s stark ballad about a gravely wounded soldier whose proud mother doesn’t recognize him, proved the most pointed.

Before showcasing six electric numbers from his impressively eclectic new release, “Love and Theft,” Mr. Dylan nodded to his roots with two bluegrass-gospel chestnuts featuring rare vocal harmonies. He opened with country-music pioneer Fred Rose’s “Wait for the Light to Shine” and soon followed with the mournful Tennessee mountain music of “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave.” Both songs sported keening mandolin from guitarist Larry Campbell, who later took up banjo and steel guitar.

Even the onstage style packed the old-timey punch of a bluegrass or Texas swing combo: Mr. Dylan wore a black, long-coated suit and tie with black-and-white boots, while his band which also includes guitarist Charlie Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper dressed similarly but in gray.

Of the set’s 22 songs, half predated 1970 and nine were acoustic numbers. Mr. Dylan delighted by playing lyrical if understated harmonica on three songs, including a searing electric version of “The Wicked Messenger.” Besides “John Brown,” the only other unexpected choice was the country-rocker, “Tell Me That It Isn’t True,” from 1969’s “Nashville Skyline” album.

Featured from the new CD were the ominous “High Water (For Charley Patton),” the full-tilt swing of “Summer Days,” the emotional ballad “Mississippi,” the deliriously quirky “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” the buzz-saw blues-rocker “Honest With Me” and a rambling, ringing “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” that outclassed the record. The only other selection under 25 years old: “Things Have Changed,” last year’s Oscar-winner from “Wonder Boys.” (That title’s sentiments in this post-September 11 world were reflected in the closed streets and D.C. police cruisers with flashing lights surrounding the arena.)

Roars of approval greeted Mr. Dylan whenever he applied his still subtle and idiosyncratic pipes to such signature war horses as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” Vocal harmonies from the band returned during the encore for “Blowin’ in the Wind” and a surprisingly sweet and certainly fitting “Forever Young.”

Throughout, this patriarch of singer-songwriters shuffled casually about the stage, handling an occasional lead on guitar. Mr. Dylan did not speak except near show’s end, when he humorously introduced “the best band in the land.” He merely allowed the applause to wash over him,smiling and waving his guitar.

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