Bob Dylan last performed at Key Arena in 2006, shortly after the release of “Modern Times.” That concert was an improvement over 2004’s disastrous three-night stand at the Paramount, which was more of a rehearsal for his new band rather than a concert, but never reached the heights of his 2001 “Love and Theft” outing at the Key. The 71-year old song and dance man recently appeared in Seattle at 2010’s Bumbershoot, his voice shot and his inspiration exhausted. It seemed like the end of his road as a performing artist.
But something happened last spring in South America. Perhaps it was the energy of the crowd, which robustly sang along to many of the classic songs, or maybe he needed to break out of a rut that that has been grinding him down, While touring Europe this summer, he ditched his cheesy organ for a grand piano, minimized his percussive growl in favor of a tender ballad-singer approach to the more melodious songs, and simplified the backing arrangements to allow more room for his voice to dominate. As the tour continued through the United States, Dylan retired “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” as his opening song, trying out new openers each night, one indication that this new tour may mark a significant departure from the last several years.
Mark Knopfler, who had opened for Dylan on the 2011 fall tour of Europe, does so again. Although he played guitar on several songs during Dylan’s set last year, they did not perform anything from “Infidels” or “Slow Train Coming,” the two albums that were musically defined in large part by Knopfler’s guitar. That could change on this tour, but I wouldn’t count on it. Dylan has little, if any interest, in recapturing the sound of his earlier records or even of sounding like Bob Dylan. This has been the cause of many longtime fans throwing up their hands in dismay and vowing never to attend another of his concerts. Surprisingly enough, a majority of his current fans love him, not for his classic material, but for the music he has been making in this century. They catch up on his old records as they go along, but do not bring any preconceptions about who he should be into the concert hall.
Dylan’s past has, however, been catching up with him, and his new album, “Tempest,” while still rooted in the borrowed riffs and old-timey sentiments of his recent work, snarls with righteous outrage. It begins on a ghost train and concludes on a sinking ship. Throughout the 10 songs, we often feel we are back on Highway 61, where the singer is surrounded by the fiends and freaks we have previously encountered on songs such as “Tombstone Blues,” ‘Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Desolation Row.” Whereas in the latter song Dylan sang “all these people that you mentioned / I know them, they’re quite lame / I had to re-arrange their faces / and give them all another name,” today he doesn’t bother giving names to his villains, because they are not worth naming.When a character is named, it is generally in a dismissive tone, as on “Soon After Midnight,” when he sings “Two-timing Slim / Who’s even heard of him?”
The “Tempest” lyrics, which are the best he has penned in decades, maintain a consistent point of view toward the snowballing violence of a world that is predicated on revenge. When Dylan sings lyrics of tremendous physical and emotional violence, the listener must keep in mind that he is not representing himself, but panoply of fictional characters. Among those characters is the night watchman who dreams the Titanic is sinking, but does not wake up to signal a warning. The album is receiving stellar reviews, including one from L'Osservatore, the official publication of The Vatican, which says, "The Titanic went down, but Bob Dylan absolutely has not."
Sometimes it seems that Bob Dylan himself is just another of the many characters invented by Robert Zimmerman, the boy from Minnesota who rode the folk-singer route to rock stardom. The Bob Dylan who arrived in New York City in 1961 was a near-complete fabrication, a 20-year old college drop-out had apparently lived a lifetime on the hard-luck roads previously travelled by such men as Cisco Houston, Huddie Ledbetter, and Woody Guthrie. His charmed rise from the obscure harmonica player who made his recording debut on Harry Belafonte’s “Midnight Special” to Joan Baez’s crowned prince of protest music is the stuff of legends. One he got his footing in the world of popular music, he had no more use for the Bob Dylan mask and proceeded to inhabit a series of incarnations that included a country-western singing family man, an Orphic poet, a born-again Christian, a radio host, and a song and dance man who crossed Cab Calloway with Howling Wolf.
"People listen to my songs and they must think I’m a certain type of way, and maybe I am," Dylan states in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine." But there’s more to it than that. I think they can listen to my songs and figure out who they are, too.”
His rendition of “The Times They Are a Changin’” at the White House in 2010 was proof he can still deliver the Dylan goods. But his interests today are far from that. It would be pretty thrilling were he to overhaul his whole show to showcase the new material, but we will be lucky if he switches out three songs from his moveable repertoire for three tracks from “Tempest.” When Dylan has an opening act, he general shortens his own set, so is not likely to play more than 15 songs. If he has the ambition and integrity to make each of those 15 songs count, it could be quite a dazzling evening. If not, then he has blown what may be his last chance to win back disgruntled fans.