"You think I'm over the hill," came the growling voice from the stage. "You think I'm past my prime / Let me see what YOU got / We can have a whopping good time."
Bob Dylan has been past his prime for many a long year, but when your prime is THAT good, you're bound to have something left, even at 71.
Last year he flashed his genius once again on new album "Tempest," and now the tour that brought him to California University of Pennsylvania campus Saturday night finds him in better fighting shape than we've seen him in years.
This isn't the tour to be following him around like a Deadhead, not that people are doing that anymore. In a new twist, he's playing virtually the same set every night while they break in the new kid -- 64-year-old guitarist Duke Robillard (replacing Charlie Sexton).
The bonus for fans is that Dylan and the band (oh, for it to be The Band!) have the set locked in tight. He hit the stage at the Cal U Convocation Center, a half-size version of the Petersen Events Center, to a galloping acoustic guitar and broke into a version of "Things Have Changed" that was dripping with meaning, and menace.
You could tell right away that his weathered pipes have come back around. The lyrics at the last Pete show were utterly unintelligible. This time, his voice was high in the mix, you could make out every word and there was a warmth and intimacy to it that I thought he'd lost.
A "whopping good time" might be overstating it, as this wasn't the crowd-pleasing set of favorites some may have hoped for. We've gone that route with Dylan (in the '90s) and it wasn't what it was cracked up to be anyway. Eight of the 16 songs were from the last decade, and four came from "Tempest," including the nasty blues stomp "Early Roman Kings," the venomous "Pay in Blood" and "Scarlet Town," with one of his smoothest vocals of the night.
The centerpiece at the middle of the set was a jangly and textured 7.5-minute version of "Visions of Johanna" that was a slice of heaven for the Dylan connoisseur (in the 20-plus times I've seen him, I'm pretty sure it was a first). "Tangled Up In Blue," on the other hand, came up short due to the chopped-up phrasing and too much of that tendency to bark out certain random words in the verses, as in "We drove that CAR as far as we COULD!"
In black suit and gray hat, Dylan hung toward the back of the darkened stage, a safe distance from cameras and cellphones, and moved between the mike stand and keyboard. There was a slow, old-timey feel to much of the set, but it rocked at times, especially when he led the jam with his harmonica, like on the swampy "Beyond Here Lies Nothin" and the bluesy "Blind Willie McTell."
Robillard, from Roomful of Blues, fit seamlessly with Dylan's long-running band, adding color and rhythm throughout, and he caught fire a few times -- on the blues boogie of "Thunder on the Mountain" and the set-closing, the guitarist showcase "All Along the Watchtower," which could have gone on much longer.
"Like a Rolling Stone" got the boot on this tour, which is fine because he's not that into anyway. The lone encore found Dylan at the piano for "Ballad of a Thin Man," clearly one of his personal favorites.
He seemed to have fun up there Saturday night, and it's safe to say that people who made the trip from Pittsburgh didn't regret seeing the icon playing new songs for the first time, with renewed vigor.
Dawes, purveyor of the Laurel Canyon folk-rock sound, isn't the most exciting new band on the block but was a pleasant opener with taut, flowing melodies.
The quartet seemed to win the crowd over with the sibling harmonies on the third song, "When My Time Comes," and Taylor Goldsmith's emphatic delivery on "Little Bit of Everything" might have sent some to the merch table for a copy of the band's second album.
Things Have Changed
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Soon After Midnight
Early Roman Kings
Tangled Up In Blue
Pay In Blood
Visions Of Johanna
Spirit On The Water
Beyond Here Lies Nothin
Blind Willie McTell
What Good Am I?
Thunder On The Mountain
All Along The Watchtower
Ballad Of A Thin Manmusic
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576.