If you’re coming to Bob Dylan’s show this summer to hear the classics, you’re in luck. “What’ll I Do,” “All or Nothing at All,” “Why Try to Change Me Now” — one after another, practically.
Oh, it’s Dylan’s own hits you hope to hear, and not Frank Sinatra’s? Not to worry; there are a few of those, too. But even when it comes to the selections based in his own great American songbook and not the great American songbook, Dylan is hardly playing to expectations on this tour. Unless the expectation is just that he’s going to surprise and delight his most ardent fans.
The more casual follower may be mystified by some of the set list on Dylan’s 2016 American tour, which touched down Thursday (June 16) at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium after a handful of gigs further up the coast. For almost the first time in his 55-year career, he’s not altering the set list at all from night to night (unless you count the snippet of “Free Bird” his band broke into in Berkeley a few nights earlier, briefly threatening to break the classic-rock-nerd Internet).
What dominate this year’s 20-song set: Seven selections from his two lovely recent albums of Sinatra (or Sinatra-era) covers, Fallen Angels and Shadows in the Night; and nine original numbers from the year 2000 forward, five coming from 2012’s Tempest. So, you do get a fair amount of the 20th century in Dylan’s set… just not his 20th century.
This is not par for the course with modern-day Dylan tours. Just three or four years ago, he was averaging 10 songs a night from the ’60s and ’70s, clearly in a mood to offer up the oldies. Now, that’s down to just three choices from that original prime era — “She Belongs to Me,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” all seriously rearranged, set in different keys or (in the last instance) with alternate lyrics, as is his wont. The consensus in the lobby seemed to be that most of the hardcore faithful actually didn’t miss hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Highway 61” for the 500th time, although the approval ratio might be different if he plays this same set for the broader audience at Desert Trip this October.
What the Shrine audience got was a hybrid show really not seen in Dylan tour lore since the days in the very early ’80s when he was just coming out of his born-again period and reintroducing some secular songs into his set, which made for a lot of odd gigs where both “Maggie’s Farm” and “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” were performed. This time, you’ve got a set that, on paper, at least, looks to have nearly as much of a split personality. On the one hand, he’s devoting a third of the show to covers associated with the crooner era. On the other, he’s devoting almost half the set list to the angrier and gnarlier songwriting he’s done in his later period — songs as downright brutal as “Pay in Blood” (sample line: “Come here, I’ll break your lousy head”) and “Early Roman Kings” (choice lyrical threat: “I’m gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court”). Is the gulf between the sweet standards and those surly rock ‘n’ roll threats a twain he could really make meet?
It was, thanks in large part to a stunningly fluid band that manages to make all the material sound like it derived from the same source, whether they were 1930s romantic chestnuts or 2010s fusillades. Dylan has been essentially leading a loose, bluesy roadhouse band since the 1990s, mixing together elements of the blues and Western swing. But now it’s a roadhouse outfit with some delicacy to it.
Dylan’s switch away from the guitar to piano (or just standing alone, sans instrument) some years back allows for a little less six-string clutter in the mix, so now the audience really gets to hear Charlie Sexton’s lead parts, for instance, whether he’s doing a sweet chromatic jazz part on the standards or getting ever so slightly raunchier on the originals. Tony Garnier occasionally leads a bow across his standup bass, George Recile attacks the drums mostly with mallets, if not brushes, and Donnie Herron plays more steel guitar in one night than you’ll hear in a decade’s worth of modern country singles. Only for the pounding closing encore, “Love Sick,” do they play anything that sounds like contemporary rock as we know it (with rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball taking over the lead), proving that the band can also wield a heavy hand in place of the thrilling light touch of the previous two hours.
As for the man himself, Dylan treated the two types of material very contrarily, vocally. He treats his own songs as playthings — as ever — where every line is a chance to emphasize something different than the night before, typically in a guttural, Waits-ian growl that inevitably has some attendees wondering aloud what his lifetime cigarette total might be. But you see just how much of a choice that mode of singing is when Dylan takes to a standard and shifts his voice to a higher register where he sounds melodically capable and sweet — and, if not Nashville Skyline-level smooth, still pretty smooth.
When he is singing “All or Nothing at All” or “Autumn Leaves,” you realize he is actually In Fine Voice… when he wants to be. And he clearly enunciates every word in these sparse, balladic covers — unlike the tangled thicket of indecipherability his own songs, in which you really can’t compare him to any other rock singer so much as a Miles Davis who just happens to be playing his voicebox like a horn.
Also helping the two disparate elements of the set list come together: Dylan has eschewed the happier romantic songs on his two recent albums (no “It Had to Be You,” which really would be hard to juxtapose against “Pay in Blood”) in favor of the more brooding standards, like “Melancholy Mood” and “I’m a Fool to Want You.” It’s Tin Pan Alley in a dark alley.
Almost literally, given the dimness of the set design. If you’ve ever lamented that most rock shows are lit like a bad 1970s situation comedy, Dylan has seen to rectifying that with an aesthetically rewarding stage setup that has more backlighting than front spots, with lawn-type lanterns occasionally coming aglow amid the band members when the giant rear curtain is given over to a projection. It helps the show feel both warm and a little mysterious — exactly the mood you want from an artist who we affectionately embrace and who also holds us at a fitting arm’s length.
Dylan, of course, did not deign to speak to the crowd, except to mumble something we can only presume was a helpful intermission announcement. But, as welcome wagons go, his reticence was more than counterbalanced by the crowd rapport established by opening act Mavis Staples. She didn’t mind addressing any unspoken fears the audience might have that either she or Dylan — 76 and 75, respectively — could be nearing retirement age.
“I ain’t tired!” she declared, after noting the Staple Singers started out 66 years ago. “Y’all ain’t seen the last of me!”
If anyone thought her loose lips might extend to telling tales on Dylan, since they dated once upon a time, she had only this to say: “How about that Bobby?” (Long pause.) “He’s quite a guy.” Preach, Mavis.
Here’s the set list:
“Things Have Changed”
“She Belongs to Me”
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”
“What’ll I Do” (cover)
“Pay in Blood”
“Melancholy Mood” (cover)
“I’m a Fool to Want You” (cover)
“Tangled Up in Blue”
“High Water (For Charley Patton)”
“Why Try to Change Me Now” (cover)
“Early Roman Kings”
“I Could Have Told You” (cover)
“Spirit on the Water”
“All or Nothing at All” (cover)
Long and Wasted Years
“Autumn Leaves” (cover)
“Blowin’ in the Wind”