Ever since his surprise move from strummed acoustic guitars to amped-up electrification in 1965, fans of Bob Dylan have repeatedly asked one sad question: Why doesn’t he do his songs like he sounds on record? That includes everything from live collaborations with the Band, the Grateful Dead, his Rolling Thunder Revue, his time making Christian music and the Frank Sinatra songbook tour, on which he actually managed to dance during his Ol’ Blue Eyes renditions.
Audiences love to hate watching Bob Dylan as he mangles their favorites songs, which just happen to be his to mangle.
Commenters will more than likely feel similarly about Dylan’s current run at his Never Ending Tour, this time featuring longtime bassist Tony Garnier, pedal- and lap-steel master Donnie Herron, guitarists Doug Lancio and Bob Britt, along with new drummer Jerry Pentecost. Dissing the way-vital, 82-year-old singer/songwriter while in continual deconstructionist mode, however, would be silly, as Dylan and his band came closer to the sound of his “original” recordings at the Fillmore as I’ve witnessed as of late.
I said “closer,” and not on point.
Rather than use the grizzled, snarling sing/speak of recent tours, Dylan worked his higher register in low volume and crooned many of his familiars in what seemed like a private conversation. He ever-so-slightly modulated his gently grumbling warble with each selection, but what was most different about Dylan’s voice on Sunday was how he moved around the pieces of his delivery as if he was playing chess.
From the first song to the last, Dylan shifted the ever-familiar vocal melodies of “Watching The River Flow” and the slow-to-quick-stepping “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and altered the spacing of the usually halting “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine,” now reminiscent of a Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers arrangement.
What were once placid rockers, tender folk songs or uneven blues (“I Contain Multitudes,” “False Prophet,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”) spilled forth in Philly as wild tangos, jittery jigs, horny honky tonk-ers and low-rumbling, Bo Diddley-esque rockers, each with Dylan stretching and softening his vowels as if in quiet prayer. He was occasionally incongruous to what his band was playing, but by the time Dylan and his assembled hit the chugging, ghostly blues of “Black Rider,” they sounded menacing and marvelously in sync. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” too, was harmonious in its move from sweetly-sung lullaby in its early stages to rockabilly boogie by song’s close.
Sitting nobly behind his piano at stage’s center for most of the show, Dylan ended the oddly short (a crisp 90 minutes, and out; no phones or cameras allowed) live program with a one-two salvo of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and a cooly epic “Every Grain Of Sand” (featuring him blasting on harmonica). Earlier in the set, Dylan reminded everyone that it was a Sunday by pulling out the holy-rolling “Gotta Serve Somebody” with revisionist lyrics among its prayerful stanzas.
On the longtime Dylan live meter, this Philly show was a solid 86 out of 100.