Bob Dylan represents one of the most fascinating artistic dichotomies possible in the 21st century.
His music sounds like it comes straight out of the earth — a fertile, dirty mix of the blues and soul and rock and country that blends into a swirling kaleidoscope of sound. He plays with the best Americana musicians on the planet and his take-it-or-leave-it voice (I’ll take it) has evolved into a craggy, expressive instrument that is part carnival barker/part folk poet preacher.
The man is old by rock and roll standards — 70 — and so you kind of expect him to act old.
That’s where the dichotomy comes in, as Dylan demonstrated Wednesday night at the Toledo Zoo. These days we all hear about someone reinventing herself. It’s a buzz word that suggests the path to success in our careers and relationships, to fixing what’s broke in our lives and surviving these sometimes dark times lies in reinvention.
And no one is as good at that process as Dylan, even when he’s playing music that’s 50 years old and steeped in traditions that date back nearly a century.
That restless desire to move forward from folk icon to uber singer/songwriter, snotty rocker, born again Christian and all the other archetypes he’s adopted informs everything he does.
So you go to a Dylan show like the one in front of about 3,600 people in the Zoo Amphitheatre and have no idea what to expect. The pay-off was a brilliant, galvanizing 90 minutes of music that featured some freakishly good rearrangements of songs in his canon that forced his audience to rethink “Ballad of A Thin Man” or “Tangled Up in Blue” or even newer works like “Mississippi” and “Things Have Changed” because Dylan makes them better than the originals.
On Wednesday “Tangled Up In Blue” was chill-inducing as Dylan and his band found an undiscovered funk groove in what was once an acoustic-driven anthem. He rapped the lyrics, re-emphasized certain words and changed the rhythm dramatically to give the song a completely different vibe while keeping the signature, instantly identifiable acoustic riff that makes the song so familiar.
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” from his most recent album, “Together Through Life,” featured Dylan stretching out on guitar and along with Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimble turning a fairly straight-forward blues song into a noisy, extended three-guitar jam. “Mississippi” evolved from the ruminative recorded version to a galloping, poppy song that transformed the original’s serious bent into something randy and seductive.
“Like a Rolling Stone” lost much of its bombastic sneer and became a Stax soul song and “Ballad of a Thin Man” utilized eerie echo on many of the lyrics as Dylan spit them out.
This took place all night long and it turned into an exceptionally entertaining 15-song romp through the Dylan songbook. His organ playing has become a much bolder part of the band’s sound since he last played in Toledo in 2007 and his harmonica work was predictably fantastic.
Best of all, the amphitheatre’s acoustics worked in his favor as a singer, and his voice sounded strong whether you were camped in front of the stage or up in the cheap seats. Dylan was fully engaged throughout, bobbing around behind his keyboard, gesturing with his hands and swaying when he stepped out in front of the microphone, and leading the band.
I’ve seen him four previous times, including at the concert at the former University of Toledo Savage hall four years ago and this was easily the best show I’ve seen. The sound was impeccable and Dylan and his band were playing their 43rd show of the year so they were in top form.
Opening act Leon Russell put on a solid 45-minute set. Looking like a hippy Buddha with his long white beard, cowboy hat and shades, his piano playing was instantly identifiable and soulful and his band was tight and energetic.
Unlike Dylan, though, he lapsed into a bit of a nostalgia act late in his set, running through war horses like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Jumping Jack Flash” and you couldn’t help thinking you were watching an over-qualified cover band.
“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” “Things Have Changed,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin,’” “Mississippi,” “High Water (for Charley Patton),” “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” “Sugar Baby,” “Forgetful Heart,” “Thunder On the Mountain,” “Ballad of A Thin Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Blowin’ In the Wind.”
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159