In 1978, I saw my first Bob Dylan show, at Madison Square Garden. At one point my friend said to me, “What the hell is he doing? I just want to hear ‘Tangled up in Blue.’ ” I turned to him and said, “Um, that last song was ‘Tangled up in Blue.’ ” For more than forty years, the so-called Voice of a Generation has been fiddling with his vast catalog, reimagining classic songs and focusing on new material during his Never Ending Tour, which thunders into the Beacon for seven shows November 24 to December 1. He has previously played the venue twenty-one times, beginning in October 1989, including memorable performances with Patti Smith in December 1995. All these decades later, if you’re expecting the seventy-seven-year-old troubadour to change his stripes, well, that just isn’t going to happen. So it was with great anticipation that I entered the Beacon on November 26, and Dylan did not disappoint. Exclusively playing a baby grand piano — occasionally sitting, more often standing or just leaning against a high piano bench — along with some fine harmonica, Dylan did not alter his basic setlist one iota from any other show on this leg of the tour (although occasionally he switches an encore). Dylan was joined by Donnie Herron on pedal steel, lap steel, electric mandolin, banjo, and violin, Charlie Sexton on lead guitar, Tony Garnier on electric and stand-up bass, and George Receli on drums, each wearing silver sequined jackets, black boots, and black pants. (Rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball dropped out earlier this month.) Dylan was dressed in black-and-white boots, a black shirt with a bolo tie, and a loose cross between a kimono and a cowboy jacket ennobled with glinting swirls of blue and white embroidery. No hat perched atop his huge shock of curly (evenly brown) hair, and no pencil-thin mustache ornamented his occasional sardonic grins. The hundred-minute show was a mix of folk, pop, rock, blues, jazz, and even a little jumpin’ jive, a cacophony of sound centered around Dylan’s still-remarkable vocal phrasings.
For the last several years, one thing that hasn’t changed is Dylan’s opening song, the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed,” written for Curtis Hanson’s 2000 film, Wonder Boys. “People are crazy and times are strange / I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range / I used to care, but things have changed,” Dylan sings, but don’t be fooled by his lack of patter with the audience (he did actually introduce the band during at least one of the shows); Dylan is fully engaged in the music as he proceeds through his carefully selected setlist. Five of the next six tunes dated no later than 1971, but in each case, the audience did not applaud with recognition until they caught familiar words in the chorus, since the arrangements were so displaced from the original versions, and even some of the lyrics were altered, making it hard to sing along; but that’s exactly what makes these Dylan concerts so exciting. (I use binoculars not only to see his facial expressions, which include a smiling grimace, but also to read his lips to figure out what he is warbling.)
He also employs a sly sense of humor; he reimagines “Simple Twist of Fate,” only to let the missing melody line later appear in “Make You Feel My Love.” Be prepared for a host of songs from 2001’s Love and Theft, 2006’s Modern Times, and 2012’s Tempest but nothing from his American songbook or Christmas albums, and there’s not a dud in the bunch. On a sizzling “Scarlet Town,” Dylan headed to center stage and grabbed the microphone stand, adopting a few rock-star poses as he belted out the bluesy 2012 tune with a Middle Eastern lilt, declaring, “If love is a sin then beauty is a crime / All things are beautiful in their time / The black and the white, the yellow and the brown / It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town.” His regal reinvention of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” made it vital once more.
The only uncomfortable moment came during the first encore, an update of “All Along the Watchtower” in which he suddenly stopped the song and seemed to be angry, either at a technical issue or a person in the front snapping his picture — who just happened to be Ringo Starr, who posted the awful photo to social media; Dylan returned to the song but it never regained its steam. (Paul McCartney took in an earlier Beacon show.) The key to experiencing a Dylan concert is to just let Bob be Bob. There’s still no other musician who can so adroitly capture the heart and soul of life and love and the state of the nation in such unique ways. He doesn’t just sing but virtually spits and swallows words, a bittersweet outpouring that can rattle your core with a beautiful glory. Go to the Beacon with no expectations other than to be uniquely entertained, challenged, and confused, and keep those cell phones off and don’t try to sneak pictures or text friends. More than at most shows, you need to pay attention to every rapt minute, and if Dylan hasn’t earned that respect from you, then just stay home and binge Netflix.