Review: Dylan leaves the hits behind in favor of more haunting recent material
November 21, 2014 1:08 AM
Bob Dylan's concert Thursday night marked the 73-year-old's Heinz Hall debut and first Cultural District show in 34 years.
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Bob Dylan .
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As he has the past two years, Bob Dylan strolled out — in vintage gray suit and wide-brimmed hat — and launched his set Thursday night with "Things Have Changed."
Indeed they have.
In earlier phases of The Never-Ending Tour, Dylan's m.o. was to cast aside the new in favor of greatest-hits sets that may have pleased the casual fan but had him at times seeming only half-interested. (American Eagle festival, anyone?)
Now, this most complicated of legends, who has made a career of inventing himself, has shed most traces of nostalgia and embraced his own here and now.
This more elegant theater tour, marking his Heinz Hall debut and his first Cultural District show in 34 years, presents the same 19-song set each night with a mere four songs he released pre-21st century. It's safe to say that Dylan, at 73, is the only member of his generation doing that at the moment (never rule out Neil Young's next move) and it's not generally a winning formula for fans, who hopefully checked set lists before entering.
Of course, Dylan's been messing with his classic melodies and phrasings for years, so nothing's been sounding quite like the originals anyway. But this show — a dark, shadowy cabaret not unlike what you’d see from Tom Waits — came with a cohesive mood and sense of purpose.
The languid, bluesy, waltzy ballads that made up the bulk of the set are well-suited to his grittier-than-gritty, road-worn voice. The words came through more clearly in the pristine hall, Dylan growling reflective tales of lost romance and life's later passages, with titles that speak volumes: "Beyond Here Lies Nothin," "Pay in Blood," for starters.
Still not touching a guitar, Dylan split his time between standing at the mike, crooner style, with his Chaplinesque flourishes, and being the piano man at a baby grand, a big improvement over the electric keyboard he had been favoring.
His long-running band — complete with guitarist/rock star Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron working wonders on pedal steel, mandolin and violin — is a seamless unit that never calls too much attention to itself. It will offer gentle backup and color ("Waiting for You" had shades of The Band), it'll swing ("Duquesne Whistle") and it'll thunder when it gets the chance ("Early Roman Kings").
From the archives came "She Belongs To Me" and "Tangled Up in Blue," delivered without the jangle they had in '65 and '75, respectively. "Simple Twist of Fate" was another highlight, with Dylan twisting one line to "You should have met me back in '58/we could have avoided this simple twist of fate." You've got to love how the master's songs are never etched in stone.
Having painted some romantic scenarios, Dylan closed the 45-minute first set with a tense, chopping "Love Sick," barking out "I'm sick of love!/But I'm in the thick of it."
The 50-minute second set started with a roaring "High Water (for Charley Patton)" and then was thick with "Tempest," including that heavy blues stomp "Early Morning Kings," the easy-rolling "Soon After Midnight" and bitter taste of "Long and Wasted Years."
Some of that tension was released with an encore of "Blowin' in the Wind," served with an oddly lighthearted arrangement, and a warm cover of the Sinatra classic "Stay With Me" that hints at things to come in 2015.
One of the standout lines came from "Spirit on the Water," as Dylan threw out a challenge: "You think I'm over the hill/you think I'm past my prime/let me see what YOU got /we could have a whoppin' good time."
A whoppin' good time? Maybe not if you came to hear the classic Dylan catalog. Instead, this was an intense, artful show from an uncompromising legend still searching for answers and still fully engaged in his craft.
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