You have to give Bob Dylan this — in a youth and novelty-obsessed era, he’s not afraid of aging. With his pencil-thin moustache and Western suit, backed by musicians in suits and fedoras, he looks like an old-fashioned troubadour who wandered into town looking for a gig. And on his last few albums, he’s rummaged through the dusty corners of American music — Delta blues, parlor songs, murder ballads — for inspiration.
It is, without a doubt, old people’s music. He gives no quarter to current styles, and death is never far from his thoughts these days. As with his most recent album, “Together Through Life” (Columbia), his set at the Palladium Tuesday night (the first of three shows at the renovated dancehall) was filled with songs that contemplated endings: of love affairs (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) and life (“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ “). But he’s not going quietly into the dark night; there was a friskiness to his perf Tuesday that kept things from turning maudlin. “I’m gonna put my best foot forward,” he sang in “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” and he certainly did.
A good deal of the credit for this goes to guitarist Charlie Sexton, who rejoined Dylan’s band earlier this month. A powerful and unfussy musician, his interplay with Dylan provided most of the evening’s musical highlights. His return has also revived the other musicians, who have sounded flabby over the past few years — and indeed at Tuesday’s show they relished the chance to stretch out, turning “Highway 61 Revisited” into a searing blues jam. Dylan appeared to be having a great time, subtly rejiggering the songs to keep the band on their toes.
He repeated the chorus on “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” hit upon a roller-rink organ riff during “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” that turned into a motif, repeated by Sexton on guitar and echoed in Dylan’s vocal for the tune’s latter half. And “Cold Irons Bound” was reworked into a pummeling one-chord vamp.
It’s not the wholesale, often perverse overhauls that characterized Dylan’s late-’80s and early-’90s concerts; the songs are recognizable, their structures and chords mostly retained. The biggest changes were in the melody lines, which have been adjusted to suit Dylan’s ravaged voice. And his vocals still pack an emotional punch.
He crooned “Don’t Think Twice” in a style reminiscent of Willie Nelson, his gentle rasp skipping above the song like a stone on a lake. He turned pugnacious for “Ballad of a Thin Man,” using short, sharp phrasing like jabs to the midsection.
He may not have the suppleness and electricity of his prime, but Dylan is doing something that’s almost as impressive — aging gracefully.
Dylan and His Band will play Gotham’s United Palace Theater Nov. 17-19.