Of the artists flooding the market with unreleased, remastered or otherwise boxed up old material, only one of them is on the road, as he has been for 30 years or so, playing live on the road.
None of what Bob Dylan plays on the road has anything to do with the latest product in the stores and that was the case with his show Friday at the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
None of the songs were old enough to have been part of “The Widmark Demos 1962-1964.” But he only played one song from his last studio album, “Together Through Live,” “Jolene.”
In fact, Dylan at 69 made a case of an artist who has been productive for five decades, instead of some 60s icons still slinging the oldies on the road.
While many shows over the years have had the still great to hear songs from the 60s dominating the show, this one only had a handful from the era.
Instead, he began with 80s songs like the hard charging “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” from the Jesus-era of which the amusing spoken intro still speaks, followed by the exquisite and understated “Shooting Star” before bringing back the great “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” his voice now so grizzled that his “Oh Mama!” sounds like a desperate croak — but a croak that seems hilariously appropriate for the song.
As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, he’s still reinventing all of his songs to keep them living, evolving things. “Tangled Up in Blue” seemed subdivided by some new timing that took some getting used to; “Honest with Me” had a “Really Got Me” power that changed its approach as well.
Much of Dylan’s set was in the recent few albums – the breezy yet defiant “Spirit on the Water,” “Honest with Me,” the not often played “Can’t Wait.” I like to think of “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” as political commentary, but maybe that’s just me. “Thunder on the Mountain” is a blues rocker that fits his band as well as anything; such as the nearly straight Muddy Waters cop of “Rollin’ and Tumblin.” “Workingman’s Blues #2” had an emotional content that drove it home.
Of course, it was great to hear the 60s classics that were a part of the show, from “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “Highway 61 Revisited” to the dark power of “Ballad of a Thin Man” that ended the regular set and the universal “Like a Rolling Stone” that’s been topping his shows on this set.
As a performer, Dylan is more versatile musically than he has been. Rather than stay at his keyboard (where his contributions are now more audible), he moves more often to the microphone, with or without electric guitar as the song demands.
On one hand the current tour seemed stripped down in a way: No opening act; not even pre-show recorded music or the fanfare that usually announced his set. But there was a little variation visually, as different projections were displayed behind them for different songs. A couple of times the projection was also a live video of the band, as if to provide better viewing for those in an arena. This almost never worked that way – Dylan kept away from the fixed camera or the band was seen as no larger to most of those in the arena than they seemed in real life.
Charlie Sexton’s return to the band added a professionalism and single-mindedness in making this a Texas roadhouse band. It meant Stu Campbell had less to do as a guitarist. The surprise is that Dylan himself took a few leads, which I hadn’t heard him do for a few years, squeezing new approaches to songs that are never allowed to get old.