Only a few years ago, Bob Dylan seemed willing to work material from his current album into his live set. That his 15-song set Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl contained nothing from his excellent new “Tempest” collection can be seen as a testament to his legendary irascibility, his disinterest in any of the material on “Tempest,” a concession to the fact that no set of a dozen-plus songs will ever be adequate to express the depth and range of his magisterial songbook, or perhaps all three.
Yes, it’s churlish to complain about Dylan’s idiosyncrasies when America’s greatest living songwriter is on stage delivering full-bodied renditions of his greatest songs, such as the epic “Desolation Row” and the still-potently jarring “Ballad of a Thin Man.” But did Dylan really have to kibosh any video screen coverage beyond a long-distance master shot that was the visual equivalent of a dark tapestry?
But for now and forever, we’ve learned to let Bob be Bob.
For the uninitiated to the live Dylan of the past two decades, the blown gasket voice (which, amazingly, still has nuance and subtle expressiveness on record) and the Texas roadhouse arrangements of his sharp touring unit aren’t the expected recreations of the Maestro’s recorded masterpieces that first changed American music and then transformed culture in ways still being measured.
For the nearly full Bowl crowd of appreciative fans, Dylan’s refusal to surrender to anyone’s expectations was taken in stride as part of the sacred deal. Accept him on his terms and you get a harmonica solo on “Tangled Up in Blue” that at times felt he was taking the role that sax player Steve Douglas once held in his band.
You get the muscular ZZ Top-infused boogie of “Highway 61 Revisited,” as well as the almost-traditional melodic joys of set-opener “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” a heartfelt if elegiac “Like a Rolling Stone” and many other treats that can’t be measured by any yardstick other than the one Bob Dylan packs with him wherever he goes on the Never Ending Tour.
Still, when you have great new rockers in your songbook like “Tempest’s” “Pay in Blood,” why not loosen up a little and share the fact that you can still write like a man’s whose creative wheels are very much on fire?
Opener Mark Knopfler fronted an exquisite eight-piece band and delivered a powerful display of his soulful guitar virtuosity. Accessible, textured, warm and engaging, his silky yet forceful, folk-based, largely acoustic ensemble was perhaps the perfect warm-up for Dylan’s thorny, steady-as-you-go tight grooves.