By Mark Guarino
The band looked sinister in black leather suits and grimaces. The lead singer joined them in western wear, topped by the wide brimmed hat of a gambler.
They played over 90 minutes of music, but not in a dive bar or a seedy roadhouse located along a desert highway. The location was the opulent Chicago Theatre where, on Saturday, Bob Dylan played the first of a three-night stand. The final show is tonight.
If Dylan somehow, someway, has not caught your attention in the past few years, you must be living a very cloistered life. He is not just in the public eye, he controls it. To date, he has a weekly satellite radio show, PBS documentary, a best-selling book, and a run of well-received albums, some considered worthy of standing along the best of his early work. Next month a film based on his life hits theaters, last week was the release of its two-CD soundtrack featuring members of the alt-nation covering his songs, from Eddie Vedder to Jeff Tweedy. And, of course, new music products are always here: a new box set of archival recordings is around the corner and a best-of collection is currently available at a certain corporate coffeeshop near you.
Yet despite the neverending coronation, Dylan has maintained a low profile on the road. While the few peers he has left — Paul McCartney in particular — have chosen to play splashy shows in sports stadiums, Dylan continually chooses unusual venues in secondary or third markets — a minor league ballpark in Peoria, an arts center in Gilford, N.H.
Tonight is the last of his fall tour and although the Chicago Theater is not exactly the veteran’s hall in Poughkeepsie, it is only one of a few premier venues he played this year. Not that it meant a difference on the stage. Besides fancier mood lighting, the show was lean, lively and featured a setlist of songs that he has not played live in years.
Arthritis is the rumored reason why Dylan in recent years has switched to keyboards from guitar. Yet there he stood at the start of Saturday’s show, offering flecks of guitar, during the first three songs. He later returned to his keyboard, but even there, he sounded more engaged, sustaining chords that conducted his five-member band.
For Dylan diehards, Saturday’s show revealed rare song choices — “Watching the River Flow,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Things Have Changed.” His band is most capable of playing with broad strokes, turning his catalog hits into bluesy rock covers. That was not the case Saturday as the playing had a definite lighter touch, making some songs into unrecognizable forms of their older selves (“Positively 4th Street”) and making others (“Workingman’s Blues #2”) more expressive.
With Dylan’s voice long shot, he transformed it into an asset, leaving well-timed space between phrases, making pauses assets, and filling his rasp with robust fervor. The unusual presentation of some of pop music’s most enduring songs became transfixing to hear.
The parlor room vibe of newer songs kept the crowd to the seats, which in this case, didn’t mean they weren’t engaged. During “Spirit on the Water,” Dylan, 66, got to this line — “you think I’m over the hill/you think I’m past my prime”— they rose with applause. Clearly, the answer was no.