Two blocks from the White House Tuesday, where a Ferguson protest was raging on, Bob Dylan sat between the columns at the DAR Constitution Hall and asked one more time “How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?”
It got a bit of a rise from the crowd, this sorrowful notion that more than a half century after he first wrote it, he had to ask again. So did the line “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”
Echoing in a place that itself banned Marian Anderson from singing in the hall in 1939 because she was black.
But Dylan, at 73, has long since stopped being a kind of political oracle, a singer of social action that helped shape music, a generation and the world.
On an unusual tour that has him playing the exact same setlist night after night for the past month, he seems to be favoring more the balladry in his own catalog and that of others — the Frank Sinatra “Stay with Me” closes the show, foreshadowing his album of standards out next year.
It’s not because, as he claims in the opener, “I used to care, but things have changed,” from a song that has since been sold to Chrysler. He may be at a point where he is simply appreciating the beauty of song and joys in a melody.
Also: the fun of being a performer.
After years of appearing coiled in tension on stage, for decades behind a guitar, here he was in a kind of white zoot suit and hat — like Jim Carrey used in “The Mask” holding the mike stand, unencumbered by instrument, tilting it as he crooned, stepping lively around the stage when he wasn’t.
More than half of the show he stood at the microphone, with no instrument but the occasional harmonica wail; the rest of the time was at a grand piano, where his chords and countermelodies had more prominence than they might have on past tours, sometimes guiding the band (he also played “Blowin’ in the Wind” on piano, an instrument not usually associated with the song except by Stevie Wonder).
Dylan’s voice may seem on perma-frog, judging from the grit on his last album, “Tempest,” which dominated the set list with six out of the 19 songs. But he’s also able to adjust his growl, so that some of his singing was surprisingly sharp and clear.
The music mix in the hall Neoclassical hall was superb, his sometimes hard to distinguish voice clear above the longtime quintet that so well serves his music, with Charlie Sexton on guitar.
I wish maybe there was more of a sense of place in Dylan’s performance, though.
And not just the usual political commentary of “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or the whole of “Tweedlee and Tweedledum.”
I mean the specificity of this place, retold on the recent “Narrow Way” — “Ever since the British burned the White House down, there’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town.” The DAR hall is located in the block between the White House and the Octagon house, where Madison lived for six months 200 years ago as the city rebuilt from the War of 1812.
“Narrow Way” was one of just four songs from “Tempest” that isn’t being played on the current tour, which if nothing else acquits well the latest studio output — the rock of “Early Roman Kings” and the wistful groove of “Pay in Blood” all pretty much in the same arrangement as they were on the 2012 recording. It wasn’t entirely true, though, as the chassis of its opening “Duquesne Whistle” has been completely retooled as a shuffle.
Dylan is the only performer who came to fame from the 60s (or 70s or 80s) who doesn’t rely at all on the early tunes. He’s always refused nostalgia as a common response to his material; even when he was playing a lot of it, he treated the songs like living, ever evolving things, sometimes having little to do with how it was originally recorded.
He did that again on the handful of pre-1997 material he included, especially a “Tangled Up in Blue” whose verses seemed chopped in half; its “Blood on the Tracks” counterpart, “Simple Twist of Fate” came a little more intact, but with its own new internal engine. The only other old song in the set? A rearranged “She Belongs to Me” as the show’s second song.
Otherwise, all were tunes he had recorded with this same band; along with “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ and “Forgetful Heart” from 2009’s “Together Through Life”; “Workingman’s Blues #2” and “Spirit on the Water” from the 2006 “Modern Times”; and only a stinging “Love Sick” from his
2001 1997 breakthrough “Time Out of Mind.”
The one real head-scratcher in the tour (other than the Sinatra, I suppose) is “Waiting for You,” a rousing waltz that only appeared on the 2002 soundtrack for
“The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants,” ”Devine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” something that may not be in the collection of some of the most ardent Dylan fans.
If the band looked like a country dance band from the 1920s, the staging looked like Hollywood in that era, with big golden klieg lights above them and some footlights in front — all dimmer than some of the stair lights in the hall, making it impossible to see through all the shadows.
Dylan remains an enigmatic figure and flinty musical traveler who continues to reward repeated visits after all of this time no matter where he is.