Just before Bob Dylan took the stage at the Pacific Amphitheater, he was introduced by an announcer giving the highlights of his career in an unironically hyperbolic manner. “The poet laureate of a generation; the poet laureate of the ’60s; he found Jesus in the ’70s, washed up in the ’80s, coming back in the ’90s.” By the time he left the stage some 90 minutes later, it was apparent that in the 21st century, Dylan will be known as an entertainer.
With his “never ending tour” now in it’s 16th year and no new material to promote, Dylan continues his run of impressive Southern California performances by keeping the music fresh. He juggles his set lists nightly — a feat made easier by his deep catalog of classic songs — and this time out, spent the entire evening at the piano.
If anything, Dylan seemed energized standing behind the keyboard, facing the band. Bouncing to the beat, shuffling to center stage to goad bassist Tony Garnier, he cut a Chaplinesque figure. Although half the set was drawn from his two most recent Columbia studio albums, “Time Out of Mind” (1997) and “‘Love And Theft'” (2001), the new instrumental lineup reworked older material, giving them arrangements that link them to classic American musical styles.
Driven by Dylan’s keyboard work, “Tombstone Blues” and “Things Have Changed” take on a distinct R&B tilt, while “Highway 61” became a head bobbing shuffle and the rarely performed “Watching The River Flow” nods toward Chicago Blues. Of the more recent material, the Jerome Kern influenced “Moonlight” is charming, with Dylan stretching his voice to reach the chorus’ high notes. The new lineup also gave guitarists Larry Campbell and Freddie Koella room in the spotlight, their instrumental jousts highlighting “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” and “Highway 61.” Campbell is the flashier of the two guitarists with a biting tone, and while recent addition Koella — a warmer player, with a round, liquid sound — seemedtentative early on, he shone on the jumping swing of “Summer Days,” the band’s most impressive performance.
While lacking the musical revelation of his 1997 return to form at the El Rey, the emotional tightrope walk of his post- 9/11 appearance at Staples Center or his impressive array of covers performed at the Wiltern last year, Dylan has settled into a comfortably mellow niche. It suits him well — if the encore of “Like a Rolling Stone” lacks the prosecutorial, bile of the record, his avuncular vocal skirts nostalgia by presenting it as a cautionary fable.
Dylan plays New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom Aug. 12-14.