“Things have changed,” Bob Dylan warned during the first song at his first of three nights at the Dolby Theatre this past Friday, and he wasn't kidding.
This wasn't the guitar-strumming folk singer of the 1960s or the Bible-rattling born-again preacher of the late ’70s. This wasn't even the same Dylan who’s passed through Southern California in recent years, casting thunder from the mountain like a fortune-telling bluesman.
“People are crazy and times are strange,” he snarled. “I’m in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood.”
Dylan was still steeped in the blues Friday, but he also dialed things down with a heavier dose of countrified ballads. Gone from the set were such mainstays as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the updated, hard-rocking version of “Highway 61 Revisited” that’s been anchoring his concerts for much of the past decade, including his appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in October 2012.
Instead, Friday night’s set was closer in mood to Dylan’s stop last year at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, but there were still several significant differences.
Perhaps as a rare concession to age, the 73-year-old singer split up his 19-song set with an intermission. The Minnesota native was dressed in white, while his longtime backing band was suited up in black. The stage lighting was low, with long, autumnal brown shadows obscuring the musicians’ faces. Dylan didn’t say a word to the audience, not even introducing the band, which is usually the only time he does talk between songs.
Of course, Dylan had plenty to say during the songs, and he was in curiously strong form and relatively smooth voice at the Dolby.
In recent years, Dylan’s vocals have often sounded husky and scarred, which has actually suited the grizzled persona and insomniac-blues style he’s been dipping into since his late-career critical and creative revival began in 1997 with the release of Time Out of Mind. The bigger problem has been his habit of getting behind the beat and rushing some of his best lyrical punch lines.
Friday night, though, Dylan was rhythmically solid and involved, and his singing was clearer and warmer than usual. If lead guitarist Charlie Sexton didn’t get to tear it up quite as flagrantly as he’s sometimes done in the past, he and rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball still shuffled together some subtly mesmerizing patterns for Dylan to wander in.
Another change is that Dylan’s playing a big black piano instead of the organ and electric keyboards of recent tours. His stately roadhouse piano licks on the third song of the night, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” drew applause and settled comfortably and easily into the bittersweet smear of multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron’s pedal-steel guitar.
By the next song, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Herron was crafting marvelously waxy soap bubbles of pedal-steel shine that lifted the rootsy tune from dreamland into space. But the crowd cheered loudest when Dylan brought the song back down to Earth with such blue-collar homilies as, “The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down” and “Some people never worked a day in their life.”
Following the soupy, pleasantly laid-back waltz of the semi-obscurity “Waiting for You” (from the soundtrack of the 2002 film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), the uptempo light swing of “Duquesne Whistle” was another early highlight, with drummer George Receli and bassist Tony Garnier really popping as the chameleonic singer mused about his seemingly permanent outsider status: “The lights of my native land are glowing/I wonder if they’ll know me next time ’round.”
“Tangled Up in Blue” was one of the few oldies, but it might as well have been a new song, with additional lyrics (something about names “written in blood”) and yet another arrangement — more of a loping country blues, laden with Herron’s honeyed pedal steel. It felt more resigned and accepting than desperately romantic, but the reinvention was oddly affecting in its own vocally clipped way.
The first set closed with the ominous hard-reggae guitars of “Love Sick,” as Dylan saw “silhouettes in the shadows” and howled, “I’m trying to forget you,” his voice echoing unsettlingly in the rafters afterward like an angry curse.
Kimball came out by himself and played the distant and lonely chords of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” to start the second set before the rest of the band ambled out and kicked into the song. As Herron laced things together with banjo, Sexton and Kimball impressed by pushing their string bends into the shape and curve of Dylan’s sneering vocals and answering his piano riddles with mimicking rejoinders.
Dylan became tongue-twisted on “Simple Twist of Fate,” found his decisive footing again on the balefully leering and searing blues stomp “Early Roman Kings,” and cut up “Forgetful Heart” with judicious slices of harmonica. Sexton’s solos on “Kings” spilled like quarters out of a slot machine, whereas Herron managed to make his simmering violin on “Forgetful Heart” hum like a buzzing synthesizer.
After taking a leisurely spin through the jaunty, jazzy swing of “Spirit on the Water,” from 2006’s Modern Times, Dylan wrapped himself up in the enigmatic swirl of “Scarlet Town” before ramping down the night with two more country ballads from Tempest, “Soon After Midnight” and “Long and Wasted Years.”
The first encore, “All Along the Watchtower,” had more of an acoustic feel compared to the electric, Hendrix-style guitar rampages of recent tours, and Dylan shifted the arrangement cleverly with climbing piano chords.
The last song of the evening, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” was initially unrecognizable but ultimately charming as an elegantly reworked piano ballad. It was as if Dylan were saying you can go home again, but by the time you get there, the place won’t look the same.
Set list below
Things Have Changed
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Workingman’s Blues #2
Waiting for You
Pay in Blood
Tangled Up in Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Spirit on the Water
Soon After Midnight
Long and Wasted Years
All Along the Watchtower
Blowin’ in the Wind