If there is one lesson to take from Bob Dylan’s Sunday night performance at Barton Hall, it is pretty simple: Bob Dylan isn’t a folk singer anymore. To those familiar with any of Dylan’s output from the past 35-odd years, this is old news. But for those expecting the mythological man and his guitar of the 1960s, the film I’m Not There, or his own memoir Chronicles, the Dylan of 2013 might have been an unwelcome surprise. To enjoy any Dylan concert, you have to throw out all expectations and just go with the flow. No, he’s not going to play “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and even if he somehow did, he’d morph it into some unrecognizable blues number with a slower tempo and steel guitar solos. There’s a reason Dylan concerts have reeked of weed since the early ’60s, you know?
Due credit must first be paid to Dawes for starting precisely at 7 p.m. and delivering a truly professional 40 minutes of music. The band’s arena rock stylings, with clean guitar chords and repeated arpeggios, worked in Barton’s otherwise awful acoustic environment. In “A Little Bit of Everything,” lead singer Taylor Goldsmith pulled off his best Springsteen while flexing his guitar muscle with southern fried fretwork. The band did not overstay its welcome and left that huge stage with earned cheers and hollers.
Before Dylan took to the stage 20 minutes later, the thousands standing (in contrast to those who filled Barton’s bleachers) squirmed and packed closer and closer to one another. Viewing the stage became problematic, but this is Barton after all, and I am 5’7” (as is Dylan). To my left, a conga line of concertgoers pushed past; the hooligans must have been around the age of my parents. Many non-students attended Sunday’s show, and I have a feeling that the level of satisfaction only increased with age. Dylan might as well be the anti-Avicii, and I tip my hat to the Cornell Concert Commission for mixing things up with class.
But regardless of how many Dylanologists were in attendance, few were enthused about the first five songs of his set, mostly picks from last year’s album Tempest. In retrospect, they served as a preamble of sorts, toppling our preconceived notions of Dylan and reinstating another side. The opener, Oscar-winning cut “Things Have Changed,” could not be more nu-Dylan, with a shuffle feel and his notoriously raspy voice accenting every line’s last downbeat. People have been complaining about his voice for over half a century now, so it’d be silly to criticize his performance on the basis of it, but let it be known that today’s Dylan jumps at any chance to throw in a harmonica solo or duet with the electric guitar. In “Soon After Midnight,” we found Dylan at the keyboards to croon a sweet love ballad, while his band had fun with the bluesy “Early Roman Kings,” with its Bo Diddley riff that piqued the audience’s attention because George Thorogood also ripped it off in “Bad to the Bone.” These songs did segue into greater, more famous material, but his experimentations with genre set the stage for how those supposedly familiar songs would be wholly reimagined.
Case in point: I would assume most attendees know “Tangled Up in Blue,” but with this slowed-down, less guitar-driven arrangement, a calculable audience response did not register until the chorus (when, of course, he sings the name of the song). The timeless “Visions of Johanna” picked up some sunshine when played faster, although this and his propensity to string together lines in quick triplets presented some difficulty in understanding the lyrics (more than usual, at least). “Blind Willie McTell,” perhaps Dylan’s most revered song from the past 30 years, benefitted greatly from its new arrangement, morphing from a barren piano ballad into a sexy tango that lost none of its original melancholy. Attribute this to the song’s final, chilling harmonica solo that snaked up and then down, down, down like a scenic train ride into Hades.
Perhaps the least-modified song was also one of his most recent: “Thunder on a Mountain,” from 2006’s Modern Times. The lights turned off and built back up one at a time in tandem with the intro’s glorious chord progression. For its energy and Alicia Keys namecheck, “Thunder on a Mountain” has settled in as a live favorite, and this performance introduced an element of swing, where the musicians improvised solos over a sweet vamping loop. “All Along the Watchtower” followed suit, with similar improvisational juices flowing. After Dylan finished singing, the instrumentalists softened and softened until the audience thought the song was over, only to come roaring back on a thrilling crescendo that met one of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. Here was Bob Dylan and his band, playing with the same devices employed by the dubstep “drop,” only with more nuance, less predictability and without probably knowing what the hell a “drop” is.
As an encore, Dylan treated us to one last song, one of his most personal. With its solemn pianos and themes of misunderstanding and alienation, “Ballad of a Thin Man” has long lived in the dark, and Sunday’s moody harmonica solo only bolded in its true colors. In a way, the song was a culmination of the night’s efforts, or those of all his live performances: add new voices, mix up the rhythm, but keep the soul of the song intact. When it was over, he walked in front of his microphone and just stood there, flanked by his bandmates. No bowing, no speeches, no nothing — with the incandescent spotlights above and his hands at his side he looked like a turn-of-the-century gunslinger. This is a man who has nothing left to prove to anybody but himself. Sharing a room with him should be enough to cross a number off of everyone’s bucket list, but seeing him move about, listening to what he’s doing and witnessing how he continues to reinvent himself at 71 years young — how about that for inspiration?