I ruined last Friday night’s Bob Dylan concert for myself during the subway ride out to Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York, when I looked up recent set lists and learned that the last two months of Dylan shows have played out exactly the same. On the bright side, Dylan is famous for slaughtering his own material live, and I figured it would be helpful to be able to know exactly what he was playing at a given time. On the other hand—what the hell?! What a pre-Internet-age move, reproducing the exact same show dozens of times as if no one would find out or care. And what a typically weird and inscrutable Dylan move—this foisting of a fixed cycle of largely obscure songs on audiences that might not get the chance to see him again (Dylan is, gulp, 75) and with no real potential for variation or spontaneity.
Live Dylan is a notoriously frustrating experience. He no longer plays guitar in concert, and his voice is even less intelligible than usual onstage. Melodies and lyrics shift; classics are gutted and re-arranged. Occasionally it works, and occasionally it’s bad enough to hint at Dylan’s own boredom with his classic-period work. I had seen Dylan twice before Friday night, both times nearly 10 years ago, and even back then it took a certain amount of imagination to convince myself that Bob Dylan was really in front of me, mumbling and pretending to play the keyboard. Live Dylan doesn’t leave you enraptured, it leaves you confused. Grateful, of course, that he has the health and the desire to tour, and that he’s still such a vital creative force. But still, confused. Like, what-exactly-did-I-just see-type confused.
The fixed set list adds another layer of perplexity to it all, and the most pressing question that this greatest of all Jewish artists raises in his latest tour isn’t all that different from a question that Jews ponder over the course of weekly Torah readings, which have repeated themselves for centuries: Why this material, in this exact, unchanging order?
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This summer’s set includes only three songs from before 1997, and only five songs from before 2001. Whatever Dylan is feeling right now, and whatever he wants his audience to feel, it can’t be conveyed through anything off of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited. A full third of last Friday’s set consisted of covers of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra; Dylan has released two entire studio albums worth of those over the past year. Five songs came from Tempest, Dylan’s brooding country-gothic record from 2012 and his last album of original work—alas, none of them were the title track, a 13-minute, 45-verse disaster song about the wreck of the Titanic.
At my other two Dylan shows, the show-closers were “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower.” Friday ended with “Love Sick,” off of 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and, if my notes are accurate, he tweaked the lyrics of the final stanza, telling an oftentimes puzzled crowd of 14,000: “I wish I’d never met you / I’m tired of looking at you.”
The typical Dylan flourishes were there: the near-total lack of fan service, the buried humor, the changed lyrics. Making sense of it all requires being able to discern mischief from meaning. This is actually the crux of making sense of a lot of Dylan’s work, from the early protest ballads to the Christmas album, to the late-career turn as a Sinatra interpreter.
The album version of “Tangled Up In Blue” ends with a heroic harmonica solo, one of the greatest in the entire Dylan canon. But when Dylan played it in Queens, I was left to wonder why the crooner wedged the solo between the penultimate and final verses instead. He also made changes to the song’s lyrics that just had to be the product of deliberation and reassessment, rather than forgetfulness or age. All but the final verse were delivered in the second person. “She picked up a book of poems, and handed it to me/Written by an Italian poet in the thirteenth century” became (roughly) “memorize these lines/And when the devil arrives/he’ll walk back through the door.” A reference to Dante (or is it Petrarch?) became a reference to the devil, who we know from the American folk tradition is a living, breathing resident of these very United States, rather than exclusively a denizen of the Christian Hell.
This has to be important, right? It’s a metaphysically loaded switch-up, and God certainly exists in Dylan’s most recent work. “There is no understanding the justice of God’s hand,” he sings 44 verses into that 45-verse Titanic song from his last album, closing on a notably Jobian sentiment. “I’m preaching the word of God/I’m putting out your eyes,” he growled with dread sincerity during Friday night’s performance of 2001’s “High Water.” The words of that Italian poet might have glowed like burnin’ coal back in 1975, when “Tangled Up in Blue” was written. But they’ve cooled off by now, and metaphysics are an earthier and more intimate experience for the 2016 Dylan, who’s now lauding the ability of an authorless folk incantation to ward off the devil himself.
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Dylan is an earthier and more intimate experience these days, too. What could be more relatable than wanting to nail a Sinatra classic? Even the all-time greats have a hankering for wish fulfillment. This actually worked to the show’s advantage: Dylan seemed more engaged in what he was doing on Friday night than he did in either of those concerts 10 years ago, back when he was playing his better-known stuff. You could understand most of what he was singing, and even hear the peals of the grand piano he played on roughly a quarter of the songs, particularly at the end of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” The fixed set list makes for much better performances, too: “Scarlet Town” isn’t close to a classic, but he’s played it enough times to be able to convey the force of its gothic horror; the rollicking “Early Roman Kings,” which is about the depravities of a ravening and semi-criminal elite class in a frontier town (I think), wasn’t just live -Dylan good, but, like, objectively good, too.
Does this demystify Dylan, or mystify him even more? I wrote in my notebook on Friday night, sometime during the Sinatra standard “In A Melancholy Mood,” which includes the line, “pity me and break the chains, the chains that bind me.” I’m not sure Dylan left anyone awestruck on Friday night, but I’m not sure that’s what he was getting at, either. Over the course of two hours, he reduced himself to disarmingly human proportions—and played a better show than I expected him to as a result.
In the course of a 20-song cycle about exhaustion, loss, age, doom, disaster, obsolescence, dislocation, and regret, Dylan left a frisson of fuzzy optimism. He could still make you puzzle over the slightest lyrical switch. He could still be wonderfully vexing and strange. And he proved remarkably capable of detaching himself from his own myth.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.