Updated: Sunday, November 12, 2017, 11:45 AM
Why is Bob Dylan singing Frank Sinatra songs?
Because the Nobel Prize-winning bard from whom profound revelations have been expected for more than half a century has always wanted to be a saloon singer?
Because as the 76-year-old showbiz lifer confronts mortality, he’s drawn to the home truths and urbane sophistication of Great American Songbook tunes that use an irony-free economy of language to express a world-weary nostalgia that he’s not so comfortable copping to in his own songs?
Or maybe just because he’s Bob Dylan and delights in doing what is least expected?
On Saturday at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Dylan and a superb five-piece band that showcased guitarist Charlie Sexton and fiddle-, steel guitar-, and mandolin-player Donnie Herron performed the first of back-to-back shows in support of Triplicate, a triple album that is Dylan’s third consecutive collection of songs associated with Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and other non-rock song interpreters.
But never fear, Dylan fans. This leg of the Never Ending Tour is not exclusively devoted to songs that Bob didn’t write. It’s not as jarring a break as, say, the late 1970s to early 1980s Jesus years interlude that the new Trouble No More box set intelligently reframes, and which Dylan, naturally, neither mentioned the existence of nor performed any songs from.
Other things Dylan didn’t do on Saturday night: Play guitar or harmonica, or speak a between-song word at any point throughout an enthralling hour-and-45-minute set that wasn’t short on signature songs, such as “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” and the encore of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” all of which were sung with Dylan either seated at or standing behind a grand piano.
Sorry, no Vaudeville-worthy jokes cracked this time around, nor any introduction of his blue-suited band, whose other members included guitarist Stu Kimball, drummer George Receli, and longtime bandleader and bassist Tony Garnier. (The tight-lipped. man-of-mystery approach was in stark contrast to the gregarious and inviting gospel great Mavis Staples, who was warm and inspiring in her opening set. More on that below.)
Dylan also didn’t wear the straw boater that has become a sartorial trademark in recent years, choosing not to top off the ensemble of black shirt, bolo tie, white jacket, and matching boots that he modeled when standing center stage crooning “Autumn Leaves” and “September of My Years.”
And he also made clear the things audience members had better not even think about doing. Signage throughout the venue declared the Tower a land of “No Cellphones No Photo No Audio No Taping,” and loudspeaker announcements and patrolling security left no doubt that any violators who dared to even turn on their phones risked being removed.
What Dylan did do was skillfully integrate the Tin Pan Alley standards of which he is now enamored with songs from his own capacious catalog. The 20-song set was truly career-spanning, with five songs pulled from the troika of covers albums (Triplicate, plus 2015’s Shadows in the Night and 2016’s Fallen Angels). In addition to the aforementioned oldies but goodies, other classic cuts included a countrified “Desolation Row” and an effectively reworded “Tangled Up in Blue,” with the time-collapsing alternate lyric: “Yesterday is dead and gone, tomorrow might as well be now.”
But there was also a satisfying survey of late-period Dylan originals, with a shuffling “Soon After Midnight” and swaggering, Muddy Waters-ish “Early Roman Kings” from 2012’s Tempest, and an unstoppably locomotive “Thunder on the Mountain” from 2006’s Modern Times, along with, from 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, “Love Sick” (that song you might know from a Victoria’s Secret ad) and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.”
For the latter, Dylan sat at the piano and rhymed, “Gonna sleep down in the parlor and relive my dreams / I close my eyes and wonder if everything is as hollow as it seems.” He followed that by hopping up and nimbly strutting to center stage to reminisce over Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ similarly bleak “Once Upon a Time,” which basically boils down to: “Everything was ours, how happy we were then / But somehow once upon a time never comes again.”
Of course, Dylan doesn’t sing these songs nearly as well as Sinatra did or Bennett does, and though the band delivers them with subtlety and grace, anyone hoping for pretty, perfectly in-tune renditions will find reason to cry foul.
Truth be told, the whispery Dylan renditions on the studio recordings are more musically effective than the ones he’s gruffly delivering live. But as cracked and damaged as his voice is, there’s no mistaking his commitment to the material or the tenderness of his intentions. And if you don’t like it, too bad: He’s Bob Dylan, and you’re not.
The powerfully voiced and irrepressibly spirited Staples opened with 45 minutes that drew heavily from If All I Was Was Black, the 78-year-old’s new album, due Friday, that is her third collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Before closing with a rousing, joyful sing-along of the Staple Singers’ 1972 hit “I’ll Take You There” (and recalling the family band’s shows at North Philly’s long-gone Howard Theater), she sang about the necessity of empathy in addressing her largely white audience: “When I say my life matters, you can say yours does too / But I bet you never have to remind anyone to look at it from your point of view.”