BOWLING GREEN — Of all Bob Dylan’s previous incarnations, perhaps his most recent makes the most sense for a man of his age and iconic stature:
Weird old blues shaman.
At Bowling Green State University's sparkling Stroh Center Sunday night, Dylan and his crack band cast a dark, strange spell over 90 minutes and 16 songs, sashaying through his catalog with an emphasis on his most recent album, Tempest, and his post-2000 work.
Gone is the folk hero, the classic-rock chameleon, the Christian proselytizer, the lost soul, and curmudgeon, among many of the masks he’s worn over the years. Dylan at 71 is confident and swinging, nestling deep in the blues where his craggy voice and sly humor work best.
It helps that his most recent lead guitarist is Duke Robillard, a great player who brings fire and class to his role as Dylan’s ax man, a role that has been filled by musicians who have set high standards: Mike Bloomfield, Robbie Robertson, G.E. Smith, Larry Campbell, and Charlie Sexton.
Robillard’s playing Sunday night before a crowd of about 3,800 was fluid and steeped in blues and jazz. His tone is perfect and Dylan especially seemed to love playing off his new band member. On the jazzy “Summer Days,” Dylan vamped on the piano with Robillard returning his lines. And the stellar, spooky “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ ” was chill-inducing, with the guitarist ripping off solos and Dylan returning the favor with some smoking harmonica work.
The concert was significantly different from his show at the Toledo Zoo in 2011. The set lists had only five songs in common — the opener Sunday “Things Have Changed,” “High Water (for Charley Patton),” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” The zoo show featured more heavy guitar jams, compared to Sunday, when the arrangements had more space in them and an emphasis on swampy grooves and dark themes.
“Love Sick,” the concert’s second song, set the tone. On a stage that was lit to be dark and shadowy, Dylan worked his way though the creepy tale of desire, dread, and the ambiguity of a beaten heart with lines like “Sometimes the silence can sound like thunder” as the band laid down a funky, claustrophobic vibe.
The war horse “Tangled Up in Blue” was rendered as a groove-oriented story song and stripped of its intense urgency. “Visions of Johanna” was cast the same way, with truly sublime guitar work from Robillard that accented the song’s fractured story of love.
The concert featured four songs from Tempest and the results were mixed. The arrangement for “Pay In Blood” robbed the song of its anthemic feel and seemed almost trite in comparison to the rest of the set. “Soon After Midnight” worked better as a piano ballad, “Early Roman Kings” was a fairly predictable blues workout, and “Scarlett Town” near the end of the concert reset the show’s dark theme.
By now, of course, Dylan’s voice is a battered instrument that some people can’t take, especially given his lack of range and the staccato delivery he often employs. But he makes up for his limitations with energy, some great harp work, and a killer band.
The audience was short on college students and long on folks who are long in the tooth, but it was enthusiastic and fired up and Dylan returned the adulation with an animated performance and what looked like genuine happiness when a pounding “All Along the Watchtower” closed the main set.
And let’s hear it for the Stroh Center, which is an exceptional concert facility. The sound was pristine, the folks working there were friendly and unobtrusive, and it just feels good walking in the place.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.