In 1961, Bob Dylan took what turned out to be a decisive step in his career when he left Chicago and headed to New York City. As he describes this pivotal moment in his autobiography, Dylan pays tribute to the capital of the Midwest in a single, sneering phrase when he says that he got “straight out of Chicago, clearing the hell out of there.” Fortunately for the good people of Chicago, Bob Dylan was back this weekend to play two shows at the Sears Centre as part of a tour promoting the release of Modern Times, his first album in five years, which has been received with overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Bob Dylan has always shunned the larger-than-life epithets that have been applied to him since the mid-’60s, so on Friday night, when he was introduced with a series of increasingly grand titles (such as “the poet-laureate of rock and roll”), it felt a little bit uncomfortable. This was especially the case since Dylan could be seen flitting back and forth between his keyboard and a nearby table in the pre-show darkness, visibly frustrated and audibly muttering that he hated something or other, seconds before his band kicked off the set with “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
Dylan’s habit of reinterpreting his own music with new styles, instrumentation, and melodies can sometimes give his older material a new life. At other times it can alienate audience members from their favorite songs. Though the evening was peppered with a few mediocre musical moments, for the most part Bob Dylan and his band delivered an outstanding performance, with a set that was equal parts old and new. No matter how you feel about Dylan live, you have to admire the fact that he is still taking chances when it’s obvious that he could sit on a stool playing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on an acoustic guitar and people would still go. This was clear from the fact that at the first sign of a harmonica on Friday night, the crowd roared approvingly.
Some of the more interesting moments from Dylan’s set on Friday night included a full, bluesy version of “Highway 61 Revisited,” the pulsing and moody “High Water (for Charley Patton),” a more upbeat and guitar-driven rendition of “Tangled Up in Blue,” and several of his most recent songs off Modern Times. The set was very well balanced, ranging from an almost rowdy version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” to “When the Deal Goes Down,” which was gentle enough to inspire some members of the audience to slow-dance.
One of the most illuminating moments of the evening took place in the encore, during Bob Dylan’s performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Every time he hit the chorus and bellowed out the question, “How does it feel?”, the lights would come up on the audience. It was clear that people weren’t sure exactly what they were supposed to do. Everyone quickly glanced around, realized that it would be inappropriate to sing along, exchanged confused glances with one another, and then tried to focus on the stage. Ultimately, then, it seemed as though the obvious answer to Dylan’s question was that it felt pretty awkward. But looking back, it seems that part of what contributed to the awkwardness of that moment was the fact that when all the varying groups of people with all their varying motives for being there looked at each other in the space of a half-empty, all-purpose arena, they all felt a little bit exposed. The chorus to “Like a Rolling Stone” is accusatory. It was accusatory 40 years ago, and its power persists.
And that is why Bob Dylan is still relevant. That is why Bob Dylan still offers up sincere performances of the songs he wrote as a young man when so many of his peers merely seem to be performing parodies of their younger selves. More importantly, though, that is why Bob Dylan is still making good music, that is why he is still as cool as he ever was, and in the end, that is why it was worth it to make the trip out to see him this weekend.