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April 12, 2005

Bob Dylan continues to reshape his self-portrait even in seventh decade

There are many reasons a music aficionado like myself would decide to see Bob Dylan nowadays. Many hold on to the hope that the Dylan their fathers grew up with will magically appear with all the softly spoken angst of "Blowin' in the Wind." Some go simply to pay tribute to the man who has become much more than a mere musician or a poet, completely without expectation of musical greatness.

Some aging hippies go for nostalgia, or the hope that hearing "Rainy Day Women #12 and #35" will induce the acid flashback that just isn't evoked by selling insurance from a cubicle. From the experience I had with the modern-day Bob Dylan, those who attend this show with any of the above expectations are bound to be at least somewhat disappointed. Yet if one truly knows not only who Bob Dylan was, or is, but how this iconic musician has evolved over the years, what is taking place on this current tour—and more specifically, last Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theater—makes much more sense.

This tour, which is currently slowly crawling from the West Coast to the East, marks a point of change in Dylan's evolution as a musician. The first thing anybody notices about this tour is that Dylan has certainly realized how old he is, and what sort of limits he has (as if this superhero of folk can really have limits). The tour is making longer-than-usual stops; for instance, Wednesday's show was the last of five in Chicago. Also, for the first time in quite a while, Dylan is performing with a pair of opening acts. He has realized that he can no longer perform quality music for three-plus hours, so he is opting to condense and tighten his sets to a solid hour and a half. But age has certainly not conquered this dinosaur of rock 'n' roll.

All right, I believe that has been enough commentary on Dylan's monumental status. On with the show. Speaking of Dylan's self-proclaimed "Oldest Bar Band on Earth" (otherwise known as Merle Haggard and the Strangers), this band preceded Dylan with a set of rather clichéd, bouncy, blues-influenced country. Haggard, who was celebrating his 68th birthday, had this comment about opening for Bob Dylan: "So I was sitting in my house-boat, and I got a call from my manager, who told me that Bob Dylan wanted me to open for him, and I said ‘What?'" And indeed I, and much of the group I was with, agree with his initial skepticism after that set of good old (tired) country.

Dylan surprised from the onset with a new brand of invigorating blues-influenced country-rock. Playing only piano and harmonica, and accompanied by two guitarists, slide guitarist, violin, bass and drum, the Dylan that was on stage had a presence that was anything but sparse and folksy. Rather, Dylan was very full of life. And though his vocal range has been greatly diminished (he has little more than the first and fifth), the first two songs, both of which are relatively new, featured impressively solid harmonica solos.

Beginning with the third song, the audience got a dose of how Dylan has completely reinvented his old material in order to blend with his new style. "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" surprised all of us with a pumped-up blues-based arrangement. This was followed by a few more new songs and more revamped classics; of particular note, the very dark blues-waltz rendition of "Ballad of a Thin Man." Dylan ended the show, as he has for the past year or so, with his quintessential "All Along the Watchtower." The finale burned through some of the less appealing reinventions by overcoming his original but horribly overdone version, and remaining quite different from its most popular cover by that guitarist with the last name of Hendrix.

Many will come out of a recent performance by Bob Dylan disappointed that some of their favorite songs have been reworked from the poetic folk of his early years to a forceful, driving country-rock format. Many may believe he has given into his age or even (gasp!) sold out. To this critic's ear, however, Dylan has what I think many thought he lost years ago: life. To see that this musician, unlike almost all of his peers (Merle Haggard included), is reinventing himself—as he has at several points in his career—breathes a breath of fresh air into my view of classic rock icons. So my advice to those hoping to see Dylan in the future would be that no, mama—this certainly is not the end of Dylan the artist, poet, musician, and icon.