Bob Dylan does what he wants, when he wants. And lately, the most revered songwriter of the rock era, who brought his Neverending Tour to the Mann Center on Wednesday, has again demonstrated his taste for the unexpected by crooning his way through two consecutive albums of candle lit Tin Pan Alley songs.
It’s a concept that fans first found puzzling when Dylan released Shadows In The Night in 2015, and then grew more irritated with - much to Dylan’s delight, one suspects - when he did it again with Fallen Angels this year. Isn’t this the guy that we love for the poetic grace with which he writes songs, the thinking goes, not the phlegmy way he sings them?
After so many years of testing fans' patience by presenting his own brilliant material in barely recognizable versions, with switched-up time signatures and alternate phrasings, now he’s moved on to playing the seemingly ill suited role of romantic balladeer.
If you tell a once diehard Dylan fan who’s bailed on the Bard that you’re still excited to go see him and his fabulous band perform live despite this apparent perversity, you’re liable to be greeted by the same words that Dylan used to reply to the fan who famously called the former folkie “Judas!” for being loudly electric in Manchester, England in 1966: “I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!”
Their loss. For, truth be told, Dylan, despite a ravaged voice that was barely listenable as the show began with “Things Have Changed” then grew more familiarly expressive as the sticky evening wore on, is still an able and effective showman.
On his own terms, of course. Which means, in two sets totaling 20 songs, there were all of three from what most would consider his '60s and '70s heyday. “She Belongs To Me,” was played at the start when his voice was still a wreck. “Tangled Up In Blue,” with pronouns changed and lyrics tweaked, came at the end of the first set. And “Blowin' In The Wind” at the piano, clearly stated and timely as ever (“How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?”) was the first of two encore songs.
Eight covers were essayed, four of which - “Melancholy Mood,” “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” “I Could Have Told You” and “All Or Nothing At All” - are closely associated with Frank Sinatra. Do Dylan’s versions, sung while he stood at center stage in a black western suit and boater hat - he never played guitar - measure up to Ol’ Blue Eyes? Not by a long shot. His pitch is too wavering, his voice ugly at times.
And yet, flawed as they are, there’s real tenderness in Dylan’s cowboy jazz renditions, gently carried by Donnie Herron’s pedal steel lines and Charlie Sexton's guitar fills. He may be singing these songs in part because he loves to mess with us, but not for only that reason. Because he’s clearly completely emotionally invested, and doing his utmost to honor them in his own way.
Elsewhere, Dylan concentrated on a strong selection of originals from the latter stages of his mind bogglingly prolific career, with five songs pulled from his 2012 Tempest. Among them, the Muddy Waters growl of “Early Roman Kings,” the old soft shoe of “Duquesne Whistle,” and the exploration of America’s poisoned racial legacy in “Paid In Blood.” None were likely on the top of the list of tunes the crowd most wanted to hear. But they were the one’s Bob wanted to play.
The great gospel singer Mavis Staples, who has a long history with Dylan, whose “swag” she praised, opened the show. She rumbled and roared, on her father Pops’ “Freedom Highway” and Jeff Tweedy’s “You Are Not Alone” and the Staple Singers classic soul number “I’ll Take You There.” She and Dylan did not sing together. Staples has just been added to the July 24 lineup for the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden’s Wiggins Park. The festival runs July 22-24.