In the nine years since Bob Dylan found a rebirth on the concert stage, tours that accompany new albums have been filled with spirited and artfully created perfs. His superbly executed Forum show, the seventh date of a 28-concert North American tour, found its highlights in a full-throttle vocal performance, an impeccably tight backing band and song selection that neatly balanced 21st-century songs with 30- to 40-year-old classics and a traditional anti-war epic that resonated with stunning depth.
Dylan continues to give us signs that it’s a bluesman’s life he has been crafting for years. His new record, titled “Modern Times” yet revealing music with has a sage’s p.o.v., is the result of a life spent traveling and working the way his idols did.
Muddy Waters, to use just one example, did 140 gigs when he was 65; with no record to promote, Dylan did 90-odd shows in 2005 and nearly 120 the year before. In his 16-song set, he opted for the bluesiest tunes off his last three albums and fashioned hard-driving blues out of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and, to a lesser extent, “Highway 61 Revisited.”
On a night that favored wordy songs, new reflective material had sufficient room to shine: the protagonist vowing unquestionable dependability in “When the Deal Goes Down,” the forgiving sufferer in “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” the pending doom of “Thunder on the Mountain.”
“Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” was the only tune that adhered to the recorded version — including Dylan’s craggy voice.
“To Ramona” received a Marty Robbins-ish Western bounce, while “High Water (For Charley Patton)” sounds like a muffled Appalachian tune playing on a distant radio, losing the booming bottom end that gives the recording an overriding darkness. Conversely, the manner in which Dylan allows his band to add flourishes from recordings to the reshaped concert versions continues to intrigue — nuanced chord changes on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” for example.
As usual, Dylan played no guitar, staying behind a keyboard turned so at least a quarter of the audience saw only his back and his Elvis-esque leg shakes.
Dylan’s keyboards, which bordered on inaudible when he toured last year with Merle Haggard, had an ice rink-calliope quality to them; when effective, they add a carnival feel, but in cases when a song demands a sustained wash, his sound is too lightweight.
Dylan and band were positioned a good 10 to 15 feet from the lip of the stage as if they feared bringing attention to any of the players, including the frontman. But over the last two decades, Dylan watchers have grown accustomed to this type of show, rarely placing demands on what he might proffer and delighting in the mere fact that he’s in the room.
When the band is on, as it was Friday, it’s a major bonus.
Show assessment is unlikely to be argued among the Dylanologists who pore over his every move and pontificate on the Internet with religious fervor.
To a Dylan neophyte, Friday’s concert was an often-dense, blues-dominated collection of hard-to-decipher songs that bore little resemblance to his records.
When one of his three guitarists swapped out an electric for an acoustic, the music had some breathing room, preserving the gem-like qualities of “Tangled Up in Blue,” the traditional number “John Brown” and a new track, “Nettie Moore,” that sweetly wears a Warren Zevon influence on its melody and verse structure.