“Love and Theft,” Bob Dylan’s last album, was released 3½ years ago, but it continues to corral a big chunk of the singer-songwriter’s concerts. To open a five-night stand at the Pantages, Dylan performed five of the record’s tracks, more than a third of the evening’s selections. For a performer who doesn’t believe in repeating the past, it’s a curious decision to rely on material that has practically been played to death in a very short time.
Not that Dylan should be doing sets of ’60s hits, but he’s in a position to sell a fuller vision of his back pages, a feat he has accomplished over and over since he committed himself to improving his live perfs in the late 1980s, and again in ’97 with the release of “Time out of Mind.”
This is Dylan’s first tour since the release of his book “Chronicles Vol. 1.” In it, he covers periods of transition throughout his life and there’s a feeling he’s teetering on the edge of another one. As he did in his last go-round, he has positioned himself behind the piano for the entirety of a show, no longer playing guitar. And he has replaced guitarist Larry Campbell with three new band mates — fiddler Elana Fremerman from Hot Club of Cowtown, BR549’s multi-instrumentalist Don Herron and Texas blues guitarist Denny Freeman — which pushes the ensemble away from bare-bones intimacy and toward a bigger, richer sound. They proved capable of driving the hard-charging numbers (“Drifter’s Escape,” “Highway 61 Revisited”) and toying with the nuance of quieter songs (“Honest With Me,” Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home”). Dylan and band jelled exquisitely on the rockabilly romp “Summer Days,” a tune from “Love and Theft.”
With a female fiddler as a focal point, older auds will certainly be reminded of the post-“Desire” shows in the 1970s with Scarlet Rivera and, for Dylan, a large ensemble. Those shows were goofy and mysterious, capable of veering toward Las Vegas one moment and bohemia the next, a stellar blend of material. Today’s edition has a ferocity not normally associated with Dylan.
Dylan was a bit rough vocally in the opening of the 90-minute set. “Drifter’s Escape,” transformed from a folk ode to a riff-driven rocker a few years back, served notice that the new band possesses a remarkable tightness; a trying rendition of “The Times Are a-Changin’ ” — overly raspy vocals with an exaggerated nasal whine — hedged the tune’s effectiveness.
But within two songs, Dylan delivered a real treat, a rethinking of “Just a Like a Woman.” Presented with an influence of doo-wop and weepy country balladry, Dylan, without swallowing his words, removed the rise in register at the end of so many of “Woman’s” lines, playing it calm as the band accurately reproduced the guitar curly-Qs from the record. As the set raced through newer tunes done as they appear on record — “Love Sick,” “Moonlight,” “Honest With Me” — “Just Like a Woman” sat as a goal marker, sufficiently familiar, sufficiently reworked and exquisitely delivered.
Merle Haggard, who is opening shows for Dylan to support his new collection of standards, “Unforgettable” (Capitol), delivered a show that emphasized his catalog of songs that helped form the backbone of California country music.
His 50 minutes were jam-packed with classics — “Silver Wings,” “Working Man Blues,” “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “Mama Tried.” Each was played in the signature loping Haggard style, some on the fast side of midtempo and some on the slow side. He never swaps out his electric guitar, never puts on a capo, he just works that sound.
Haggard’s voice is brooding and commanding yet mysteriously easygoing, its depth reached, oddly enough, when he trotted out the Nat King Cole hit “Unforgettable.” He promised to change his show each of his five nights at the Pantages and odds are Dylan will do some reshuffling, too.
Amos Lee kicked off the night with an able set that fit nicely in a region influenced by the evening’s two stars.
Dylan, Haggard and Lee will perform at Gotham’s Beacon Theater on April 25, 26, 28-30.