On a good night, he might sound like Tom Waits with the studied phrasing of Frank Sinatra. On a bad one, he might remind you of an old bullfrog with strep throat. In any event, he sounds parched and not pretty.
Nonetheless, you should go see Dylan in concert on his current tour, whether you’re a longtime fan who remembers him as the Voice of a Generation, or you’ve simply never seen the greatest songwriter of the past 60 years. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. Things have changed but the words remain the same. Go for the songs, those lyrics that earned him the Nobel Prize for literature last year. You'll likely hear classics, like “Desolation Row” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” that remarkably still resonate today as forcefully as they did in the 1960s. You'll gain an understanding of why Dylan is so significant in the history of music and culture.
2. Dylan has reinvented himself as a singer of standards. In the past three years, he has recorded three albums of the Great American Songbook, encompassing an ambitious 52 songs. These are tunes he grew up on — along with the songs of Little Richard, Hank Williams and Buddy Holly. When you listen to Dylan interpret these chestnuts, many of them associated with Sinatra, you realize that his phrasing is impeccable even if his voice isn't. You can appreciate him as an interpreter, a student of American music. He plays it pretty straight, with none of the freewheeling phrasing heard on his own material. He was seldom a pretty singer, even in his heyday, but his current “standards voice” is strikingly musical. He typically includes five or six standards in his set these days.
3. You'll gain a new appreciation for his more recent songs from 2012's “Tempest,” his last album of new material. It’s an underappreciated project. He typically does a few songs from that album, such as the scorching “Pay in Blood.” When you experience these numbers live, you’ll realize that Dylan is still writing with poetic potency.
4. He can be great on any given night. Last October at the all-superstar Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif., Dylan gave what I thought was his best performance of this century. Opening for the Rolling Stones, he leaned heavily on his own classics and eschewed standards. A few days later, word came that he'd won the Nobel Prize. I caught him again this summer in Milwaukee on a mini-festival bill that included Willie Nelson, Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Dylan was very good, but it seemed like just another night of the nearly 90 shows he performs each year.
5. He has a terrific band. Most of these musicians have been with him for years. Bassist Tony Garnier, who was born in St. Paul, has been on board since 1989. But the key player is multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, whose pedal steel and violin beautifully frame the standards. It's fascinating to watch Herron and the other musicians keep their eyes peeled on Dylan, who now plays mostly piano and some harmonica, to see what direction he may suddenly lead them.
6. Dylan is in the moment. And therefore unpredictable, which can lead to exciting moments. He rarely says anything in concert, but sometimes he's moved to speak. In his home state, he’s given shout-outs to such Minnesota music makers as Bobby Vee and Tony Glover. He mentioned Paul Wellstone the week after the senator died in a plane crash in 2002, and Barack Obama the night he was elected president in 2008. In 1997 in St. Paul, the Minnesota native commented on his version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” saying, “You can’t sing and play like that unless you come from around here somewhere.”
7. Opening act Mavis Staples, an old friend and old flame, might spark something new. After she and Dylan toured together last year, she told Rolling Stone: “Now if we toured again, I really believe he would call me onstage with him.” He gave her a new song to learn so they could record it, she told the magazine. Maybe they'll break it out in St. Paul, the sixth stop on their fall tour together.
8. Dylan seems to re-imagine his oldies anew every night. Will you recognize “Tangled Up in Blue”? Here’s a way to have fun with it: Play name that tune. If you listen carefully to the introduction to each song, the chord structures usually suggest the familiar melody line.
9. He should be on your bucket list. How many of you never made it to Paisley Park to see Prince and came to regret it? Dylan is a pillar of American music and a Minnesota icon. He’s 76. How many more chances will you have to see him? Go get tangled up in Bob. Now.
10. He's still Bob Dylan, and he's doing it with personality, flair and mystery — the same way he’s always done.
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