Start to finish, an assertive Bob Dylan delivered a fulfilling performance Tuesday in which the familiar and the obscure were emphatically guided by an uncommon playfulness. Songs were stretched through impeccable guitar interplay with only occasional moments of Dylan’s off-kilter cadence, a sign that Dylan has not only come to terms with his own history but that he can enjoy working with it in a crowd-pleasing manner.
In the 23 years since Dylan’s return as a touring entity, rarely has he appeared consistently satisfied with his concert persona, or even driven to connect it with his fabled ’60s past. While his albums since 1978’s “Street Legal” have been a mixed bag, his shows have been even more so; his songs, often presented in the guise of being recast, in reality were generally terrorized.
The fact that he has performed in masks, whiteface and even without a spotlight not only indicates his reclusive nature — it suggests he hardly wants to show his face in this context.
Which all goes to make the first of his five nights at the El Rey all the more outstanding. Looking spiffy in a bowtie and buttoned sportcoat, Dylan, 56, was in good voice (i.e. intelligible with no straining or screeching) and played rhythm and lead guitar with a glorious tautness; he also relished the spotlight to the point of playing the finale, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with the house lights up.
This tour, which began Dec. 1 in Atlanta and will include four nights (Jan. 16-21) in New York with Van Morrison, comprises 12-song sets with four numbers in the encore — all starting with a rousing rendition of “Maggie’s Farm.”
Dylan has been consistent in buffering the electric portions with a three-song acoustic segment and in introducing four songs from the new “Time Out of Mind” (Columbia): “Love Sick,” “Cold Irons Bound,” “Can’t Wait” and the vigorous blues ” ‘Til I Fell in Love With You.”
The new material holds its own through the denseness of arrangements and Orphic attack. Tuesday saw two new tunes sandwiching the joyous “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and ” ‘Til I Fell” following the rarely performed Band/Dylan classic, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” allowing the darkened growl seem that much more shaded.
Maybe it’s the lingering effect of playing for the Pope or having a brush with death, but Dylan’s animated style — not to mention his big smile near the end — also owes plenty to his lengthy relationship with these musicians.
They emphasized acoustic instruments at the last remarkable Dylan show in L.A. (Hollywood Bowl in October 1993), but now come into their own as a nuanced and vivacious electric group. Although lead guitarist Larry Campbell is generally the one in the spotlight, Bucky Baxter sets the tone on pedal steel, guitar and mandolin — his contributions cannot be understated.
Naturally, the intimate confines added to the allure of the evening. But for the fans over the age of 35 — the ones who embraced “Planet Waves” and “Blood on the Tracks,” played catch-up with the folk material, tolerated the Christianity and found solace in his artistry a song at a time since 1985’s “Empire Burlesque” — this was the show for the ages.
The Dylan catalog has the power to be an emotional vortex that connects a fan’s dots from adolescence to adulthood — done right, as it was on this night’s stretch from 1963’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to the present, the impact he has had on America was felt at its fullest.
Beck, whom Dylan referred to as a “young man with an incredible future,” opened with a subdued set of folk music played on guitar and banjo that included his “One Foot in the Grave.” Other acts scheduled to open Dylan’s El Rey shows are Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Willie Nelson.