“These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire.” —Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone, 2009
In 2022, it’s a little challenging to write anything fundamentally “new” about Bob Dylan, age 81 and counting, a mythic figure who has been endlessly and exhaustively documented and analyzed by generations of Dylanologists. To wit: Is his current tour (a “phone-free experience,” hence the lack of any recent live photos) an extension of the so-called “Never Ending Tour,” which began in June 1988? (If so, I can say with certainty that—save one show, with the Dead—I’ve only ever caught Dylan shows from this infinite tour.) Regardless of the answer, are we all just lucky to be catching a living legend like lightning in an increasingly breakable bottle? (Anyone with a University of Tulsa museum dedicated to their artistic legacy and whose catalog rights—originally brokered for “a hundred dollars against future royalties,” said a young Bob, straight outta Hibbing, Minn.—are now worth more than a reported $300 million can pretty safely be labeled a too-big-to-fail institution.)
So after a two-year touring break due to COVID (Dylan’s longest absence from the road in more than 40 years), you could hardly blame the Bobster if he merely wanted to phone it in: Just hire a backing band of young desperadoes, cull your most-played 20-40 songs from a body of work that stretches back six decades, ask some famous names to cameo, then roll from town to town like the Great American Jukebox, churning out the hits and fan favorites for an aging but nevertheless appreciative audience of Hawaiian-shirted Bobheads who would gladly shell out hundreds for the privilege.
But that’s not how Dylan rolls. Not now. Not ever, really.
Touring behind his first album of new material in eight years, 2020’s Rough And Rowdy Ways, the self-described “song and dance man” and his five-piece backing band (the specific players may come and go, but their sound has remained largely consistent over the years; guitarist Bob Britt cut a particularly notable sonic figure this evening) expertly weaved their way through a 17-song set that included all but two of the tracks from his current LP. This recency bias probably rankles with folks hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of the fiery iconoclast who conjured “Like A Rolling Stone” only to toss it into the studio’s garbage can (once rescued, Rolling Stone went on to name it the fourth-best rock song of all time), but you have to admire an artist who remains as dedicated to the ethos of “let’s play the new stuff” as he was back in his 1960s prime, when his every utterance and snippet of pop-poetry turned the cultural wheel like an organ-grinder’s crank.
These days, Dylan can largely be found onstage camped out behind his upright piano, and even as this evening’s set kicked off with a pair of relatively early classics—1971 single “Watching The River Flow” and Blonde On Blonde’s “Mostly Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”—tonight’s edition of The Zimmy Show roamed in a footloose-and-fancy-free sort of way through the lesser-known back pages of his oeuvre with little concern for convention, expectations or actual hits. Which, in its own bloody-minded way, is the most Dylan–like of concert experiences.
“Every Grain Of Sand” was chosen from 1981’s underloved Shot Of Love (it closes that album and closed tonight’s show as well), a rewritten and re-energized “Gotta Serve Somebody” was plucked from 1979’s born-again curiosity Slow Train Coming, while “Melancholy Mood” (a Sinatra chestnut dating back to his days fronting the Harry James Orchestra) showed how versatile Dylan has become in his dotage. Much has been made of Dylan’s vocal stylings through the years (“Does he even sing, bro?” might be one way of describing the growling, gravelly cadence of his latter-day efforts), but for my money, Dylan hasn’t sounded this comfortable and confident in a long time, inhabiting the corners of these songs fully and stuffing all 81 years of life into each and every syllable in a way that even the Chairman Of The Board struggled to do in the last mile of his own career.
In an outdoor amphitheater on a 98-degree summer night as nearby Deschutes River floaters stopped midstream to hear his set, you get the sense that Dylan is having more fun (I’m not sure he’d call it that, but most other humans would) than at any other point in his lengthy and storied career, dispensing with stage chatter and any real form of audience interaction and instead just entertaining himself and his band like you would by playing songs for friends and family in the legendary basement of Big Pink, way back when.
Dylan’s latter-day material is, to quote Dylan expert Greil Marcus, a tour through the Old, Weird America that the late Harry Smith once exhaustively documented: a pinch of blues here, a sprinkling of country there, some R&B tossed in for good measure, with a dollop of Bob’s gritty verse ladled over these vittles like so much gravy. When he sings, “I carry four pistols and two large knives,” on Rough And Rowdy Ways opening hymn “I Contain Multitudes,” you get the notion that—just like President Lincoln’s bodyguard circa his fraught 1861 inaugural—this Dylan isn’t recklessly running around on a motorcycle at Woodstock, isn’t flipping off the old guard by “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, isn’t fighting the powers that be over the course of different decades (Vietnam War, Watergate, Reaganomics, etc.). He’s just doing his utmost to keep himself alive, metaphorically and literally. And he could use some help doing it, too.
So tonight there was nothing from Nashville Skyline, nothing from Highway 61 Revisited (hell, nothing prior to 1966), nothing from Blood On The Tracks, nothing even from more recent classics such as Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft, Together Through Life or Modern Times. What Dylan did bring to the table was the shadow-realm, meditations-on-a-theme, rural-blues-inflected, honky-tonk whatsit of his last 10 years of touring and recording—the 1950s, late-night Americana A.M. radio station that he hears in his head and has stubbornly clung to like a rodeo clown to a bucking barrel nightly, across stages big and small.
You can call him the Jokerman, you can call him Blind Boy Grunt, you can even call him Boo Wilbury—but one thing you can’t call Dylan is out of touch. I found as much to be surprised and delighted by with this twilight edition of our Nobel Prize-winning Greatest American Poet as I have at any point during his six-decade career. He’s as uncompromising and challenging a figure today as he was when—backed by the young Band—he plugged in and pissed off the folkie establishment in the mid-1960s. So while I’m not sure I’d ever call Bob Dylan “punk rock,” I’m not sure that I wouldn’t call him that, either.