"For years, they had me locked in a cage/Then they threw me onto the stage," Bob Dylan once sang/confessed/bragged/warned. "Some things just last longer than you thought they would."
It's impressive that Bob Dylan is still touring heavily at the age of 68, but what's really amazing is that the notoriously unpredictable singer has been on such a consistently creative roll over the past decade or so. He admitted in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, that the muse often abandons him, seemingly for years at a time, as was the case for much of the 1980s. He's never been good at faking it when he's not motivated, unlike so many folks from classic rock's self-anointed greatest generation (i.e., the '60s) who've made a fine art of embalming their nostalgia and dutifully trotting out their ancient hits with a depressing slickness and regularity.
(note: Dylan isn't issuing photo passes for this run of shows, so we have to rely on dinky YouTube clips.)
But Dylan remains fascinating because he's motivated by his impulses and is constantly evolving. He may upset diehard fans by tinkering with the arrangements of his old classics, but that's precisely why he's still relevant. That musical open-mindedness seems to be a major reason why he's been so prolific since at least the 1997 release of Time Out of Mind. In fact, there have been so many disparately great tracks (like "Mississippi" and the above-quoted "Dreamin' of You") that didn't make the cut on such excellent, so-called "comeback" albums as 2001's Love and Theft and 2006's Modern Times, Dylan had to issue a special three-disc version of his Bootleg Series of rarities, Tell Tale Signs, last year.
Given that he has such a wealth of recent material, as well as that awesome back catalog to dip into, we though it would be interesting to review and compare each of the shows at Dylan's three-night stand at the Palladium this week. That might seem a bit obsessive, but this consecutive set of gigs offers a rare chance to see him really dig into his repertoire, and see what surprises he might have in store for his adopted hometown. Many of his fans, who follow him on tour around the country like Deadheads, already know that he mixes up his set lists every night, with the ever-present possibility of an out-of-left-field cover song.
Of course, there are also risks with being so unpredictable. Dylan has a good voice -- several of them, in fact -- but he often flounders around wildly attempting to find it. His temptation to try spontaneous new melodies sometimes leaves him behind the beat and stuck out on a musical limb like a cat who can't find his way back down from a tree. His vocals can be so erratic, they sometimes make such famously inconsistent front men like Mick Jagger, Joey Ramone and Lou Reed seem like opera singers. At the Dylan concerts I've seen in the past decade, his vocals have frequently been phlegmatic and hoarse, especially at the beginning of his shows.
But Tuesday night at the Palladium, Dylan was in fine voice from the opening song, "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," an ominous "Jesus is coming" warning from 1979's Slow Train Coming, which stalked with a bluesy intensity. You didn't have to believe in God to get a chill from its foreboding atmosphere. The singer was dressed in a black hat and a black suit with red buttons and a red collar, while the band was decked out in matching grey suits. In something of a surprise, regular lead guitarist Denny Freeman was missing, replaced for this tour by former Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton.
The second song, "Shooting Star" (from 1989's Oh Mercy), was an early highlight, with jangling guitars creating a sublimely spacy, mellow backdrop. Dylan even swung down low to intone a few deep, bassy lines like a cabaret crooner. It's a voice he rarely uses, but it sounded warm and sensual.