Hunched over a keyboard that is rarely audible, Bob Dylan has chosen to resume an aloof persona, crimping on artistry in the name of getting a performance over and done with. Where he once altered songs and made those who have bowed down to him for decades look up in reverence for his willingness to reinvent, he now seems wobbly in his interpretations and abilities, save for some mean harmonica blowing. What once sounded deliberate — a line delivered off kilter or a melody revamped — now sounds like a mistake, the result of memory loss or confusion.
To steal one of the lines he sang Wednesday inside a swelteringly hot Santa Monica Civic Auditorium: Could this really be the end? At 67 and sounding much more weary than he did just two years ago, Dylan reverted back to the sort of show he was famous for prior to his great period of rejuvenation that ran from late 1997 through early 2002.
Santa Monica concert comes at the end of a lengthy leg of his never-ending tour, and it’s not illogical to assume he’s simply rundown. While the night had its moments — an extremely strong reading of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ “; “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” with the band finding a Caribbean buoyancy in the chord changes; an impressively raw and precise “Ballad of a Thin Man” — it paled in comparison to shows he has delivered over the last 11 years in the smaller halls of Los Angeles, such as the El Rey, Wiltern and Pantages. (His system has long been to bounce between the arena, the small theaters and the suburbs, not to mention the minor league baseball fields of the East and Midwest.)
The spirit, for the most part, appeared to be willing in places — and there’s no doubt that it’s still a privilege to be in the presence of Dylan whenever possible. But too much of Wednesday’s show felt like his concerts in the early ’90s, at which the listener was forced to focus on the great moments because sloppy and incoherent was around the corner. With the acoustic guitar no longer an option, there’s not a point at which the timbral quality of the show is altered: The first six songs were so similar in meter and texture that if they were in the same key, they could have been played as a medley.
Comprising the bulk of Wednesday’s set were the songs that make it into every show. “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” was the lone rarity of the night, but even it lacked distinction: The band played it as if the song were a sequel to “Stuck Inside of Mobile.” One can argue all day about the deterioration of his voice, but there’s a level of exuberance longtime followers have come to expect from Dylan when he takes the stage. That was not present Wednesday night.