This review was corrected on Oct. 22, 2001.
Five tunes from Bob Dylan’s brilliant new album “Love and Theft” played encouragingly different roles in his two-hour-plus show Friday: One (“Summer Days”) cajoled fans out of their seats to dance; two (“High Water” and “Honest With Me”) showcased Dylan’s ability to write an extended blues number and give his guitarists room to shine; and two others (a sedated “Sugar Baby” and “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”) got the Staples crowd to sit hushed and attempt to decipher every word. Dylan, whose 60th birthday in May was greeted with a flood of books and articles celebrating his legend, still is saying things that others won’t, or can’t, and surprising the musical world with densely rich albums such as “Time Out of Mind” and “Love and Theft.”
This tour, which started in Spokane two weeks ago and continues through Nov. 24 in Boston, has seen Dylan dig up some treasures and obscurities, some that fit the times, some that fit the tone of his new work.
He is starting every show with Fred Rose’s country gospel ditty “Wait for the Light to Shine” and including Roy Acuff’s country blues “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave”; although both have been recorded by numerous performers, it’s the versions by the Louvin Brothers, which emphasize their high-lonesome harmonies, that Dylan’s band uses as a model.
Dylan has resuscitated his famous “Masters of War,” “I Don’t Believe You” — with an absolutely magical harmonica solo — and “If Dogs Run Free,” a swinging charmer from “New Morning” (1970) that fits the tone of the new album to a T.
He played the first two Friday — quite well actually, with the band assisting in emphatic clauses — but not the latter, a disappointment. Wisely, he has retired the overplayed “Silvio” and “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Friday’s 21-song show was neither bloated with war-horses nor frustratingly filled with off-the-wall song selections — though a Hendrix-ized “Drifter’s Escape” should be rethought, as it blurs the Old West tale and Dylan’s vocals are nearly indiscernible.
It was a satisfying career overview, even as it echoed a fair amount of the material performed during his major comeback with the Band in 1974.
In each show, and this has been his m.o. since he launched this band a half-dozen years ago, Dylan compartmentalizes songs into acoustic and electric blocks of three or four songs each. Opening sequence, for example, was a powerful acoustic run of “Light”; “Song for Woody,” from his first album (1962); “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” with a rather pregnant pause separating the word “naked” from “sometimes the president of the United States must stand”; and “Soldier’s Grave.”
In his new songs, Dylan has found ways to crumple his craggy voice to shape a lyric and then turn around and caress his newborn words with a tenderness we haven’t heard from him before. Anyone seeing the show without hearing the album might be jarred — aha! one might say, his voice is worse than ever.
It’s just not that way — his voice and his phrasing, in the best cases, force listeners to go at Dylan’s pace, to attempt to hear if he’s changing a word or if, by jumbling the cadence and emphasis, he’s making one rethink the direction of a particular tune.
He even does it to new songs, particularly “Sugar Blues,” though the reasons remain elusive.
Encores were the most straightforward pieces of the night: rousing versions of the Oscar winner from “Wonder Boys,” “Things Have Changed” and “Like a Rolling Stone”; the all-too-predictable “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (couldn’t he have substituted “Mississippi,” a song that should be his next single?) and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in a version and context that made it seem mortal rather than issued from on-high a couple of millennia ago. A second encore featured “Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35.”
“Love and Theft,” the most stylistically diverse album of Dylan’s career, leans on one creaky genre after another: vintage folk blues, rockabilly, Bing Crosby-esque crooning, early electric blues and rustic folk –stuff you listen to on 78s.
It excels because, despite the appearance of a haphazard arrangement of songs, it flows as a continuum. Dylan has successfully brought that atmosphere to his stage show.
For all his notoriety as a spokesman of a generation, Dylan has settled into being an entertainer, and regardless of whether America’s in turmoil or at peace, his songs stay focused on the personal over the external. After decades (mid-’70s to early ’90s) of hit-or-miss Dylan performances, in which listeners left shows perplexed, any time Dylan gives us a well-done show consisting of more than a greatest hits revue, there really isn’t a need to ask for more.
Dylan will play the Madison Square Garden Arena on Nov. 19.