A funny thing happened at Bob Dylan’s concert at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach: It got dark… really dark. But only on stage; out in the auditorium, the house lights stayed up, dimmed just a little, for the whole show. That was a first, for most of us, even with thousands of concerts under our belts. Was it an accommodation for latecomers, as seemed likely at first? (Nowadays, Dylan goes on right at 8:05, and if you’re running over from the merch line, you won’t be seated till the next set break.) No, they never did go down, and when some audience members who considered this a vibe-kill asked ushers what was up, they were told it was at the request of the artist.
Reports indicated the same thing had happened at the prior tour stop in San Diego. Did this have something to do with making sure no one was covertly filming the show, right after some footage had leaked out from a previous date, despite attendees being required to lock phones up in Yondr pouches at every date? Or did Dylan just decide that some of the recent material that dominates the show is so thematically dark that timid crowds could benefit from, you know, a night light? Not for the first time in a 60-year career, some decisions may remain impenetrable.
The irony — and you’d have to think it was an intentional one — was that the stage itself was dimmer than any other spot in the 3,000-seat Terrace. The way this “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour (which started on the east coast last fall) has been set up, Dylan starts the show completely in the shadows, playing electric guitar alongside his band for the only time all night, before he steps over and stands upright at a barely illuminated piano, where he’ll spend the remainder of the night. At center stage, guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio get the most lighting, while Dylan gets about the same voltage as drummer Charley Drayton, bassist Tony Garnier and pedal steel player Donnie Herron, also off to the side. Every few song breaks, Dylan will step into what passes for a spotlight in the middle of the stage, striking a pose as he takes in the applause, daring you to decide whether he looks more like a lover or a fighter. And then it’s back to his position at the practically candlelit keys.
Eventually, maybe, with the house lights up, there may be some kind of metaphor to embrace here: Bob Dylan can see us better than we can see him.
Heavy, right? Go ahead, take a moment to soak the profundity in.
Even if the wattage varies when Dylan comes to your town, the music itself could be described as impressionistic, with band arrangements that rarely draw attention to any one player at a time, and all of them improvising to the extent that 12-bar blues allow it, except for maybe standup bassist Garnier (the longest-standing member of Dylan’s touring unit, having put in 30-plus years), who more than anyone is the anchor of the whole thing. Of course the improviser-in-chief is Dylan, whose piano parts can can straddle the fine line between being a little oddball and deeply lovely, and who is not likely to sing the same line the same way twice in back to back shows, but who seems to reinvent his own language on a nightly basis out of craving exploration, not curing boredom, treating his voice like the fine jazz instrument it is.
Dylan is emphasizing a new album on tour for maybe the first time since his gospel era of 1979-80 (when, of course, for a period he played only new material, having fleetingly forsaken the secular). “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” released two years ago, makes up slightly more than 50% of the set, accounting for nine out of 17 selections. And by and large those picks haven’t changed from night to night, which is another difference from almost all previous Dylan touring, when the idea of a setlist set in stone would have seemed like anathema to the Deadhead-like fans following him from show to show. Anecdotal evidence picked up by talking to folks at the Terrace indicates that he still has a bunch of those nightly followers — and that, surprisingly, they don’t even seem let down that the rundown of songs is unvarying each night. They were overjoyed in the last couple of weeks when, for a few shows starting in San Francisco, Dylan replaced this tour’s usual show-closer, “Every Grain of Sand,” with a less heavenly cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” But by Long Beach, “Grain” had been restored, and the show was locked in again. No matter. If these repeat customers are guaranteed not to get a wild-card song selection most nights, they have the sense that every moment feels like a wild card.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” itself is a deeply impressionistic — read: mysterious — album despite being jam-packed with more specific lyrical details than have ever been crammed into a single Dylan record in his career, it’s still a puzzle to figure out how (or if) they all fit together. So if you want to go beyond just enjoying the mere melodic playfulness of Dylan’s line readings, you can entertain yourself during the show by wondering if the different spin he puts on thing imparts any additional clues about where he’s coming from, given that the songs can even seem self-contradictory. When he’s performing something like “Crossing the Rubicon” live, does he mean to present himself as the seeker who sings something as gentle as “I feel the Holy Spirit inside / See the light that freedom gives”? Or the violent miscreant who moments earlier was threatening to “cut you up with a crooked knife”? (In Dylan’s multiverse, maybe even the Holy Spirit has a penchant for murder most foul.)
Of the eight oldies that fill out the current setlist, only “Gotta Serve Somebody” is a man-on-the-street-famous “hit,” although picks like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” are enough to send the patron with even a passing knowledge of catalog favorites home happy. It has been supposed by some writers covering earlier gigs on the tour that he has avoided galvanizing barn-burners like “Highway 61” because he doesn’t want them to overshadow the new material. If that’s true — and it probably is — it’s not necessarily paramount to dialing the energy on the oldies down so as to falsely elevate the mostly mellow newbies. It’s more that there’s a brilliant quality to the way this set has been designed for the songs to loosely be of a piece, a throughline that would be spoiled if “Subterranean Homesick Blues” suddenly popped in.
There, I said it: “Like a Rolling Stone” would have been an absolute buzz-kill in this show. Thank you, Bob, for denying it to us.
It’s almost comical to compare what Dylan is doing at 81 with what Paul McCartney has been doing in stadium shows just on the cusp of 80. One’s a people-pleaser, and the other is a walking Rorschach test, or hall of mirrors. But they’re putting on what may be the two most reliably great shows of 2022, despite flying or bussing in from opposite ends of the solar system. You don’t want McCartney to act his age, but to defy it. On the other hand, it’s fantastic that Dylan is putting on what absolutely amounts to a rock ‘n’ roll show where nonetheless you can believe how old he is, because the depth of his performance is heightened by our awareness of the years he’s logged, which add to the palpable mythos that’s already there in the music. The barely death-defying danger of “Crossing the Rubicon,” or the fountain-of-youth giddiness of “Coming Up” — listen, it’s OK to want both from our favorite octogenarians.
You’re wondering how well he’s singing these days? Well, about as wonderfully as he has in the 21st century, as long as you’re not expecting to hear his “Lay Lady Lay” or even “Slow Train” voice. It’s the voice of ravaged experience — but he sounds pretty, at times, too. (Credit, if you will, the three albums he devoted to covering Frank Sinatra-era standards, one of which, “Melancholy Mood,” shows up late in this setlist.) His voice spins on a time from gentle coddling to the suggestion of fury — and good humor, too. This is a tour where he may actually catch him laughing, as he did in Long Beach at the end of “Masterpiece,” as if he or the band had just told a good joke. There’s enough clarity in his singing these days that the Long Beach audience was there with audible responses to certain lines, like applause during “I Contain Multitudes” for the mention of “them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.” (Even “The size of your cock will get you nowhere,” from the otherwise doom-laden “Black Rider,” got a murmuring chuckle.)
The most recent material was mostly rendered somewhat faithfully to the “Rough and Rowdy” album versions — with the exception of “Key West,” which from all accounts has gotten a few different arrangements on the tour, and which was getting yet another completely different one Monday, faithful fans reported. Of the old stuff… yeah, it’s not going to sound like the record, but you knew that. In true “Never Ending Tour” fashion, “Gotta Serve Somebody” didn’t get a big round of applause till the chorus kicked in, so unfamiliar did it sound, with the first verse rendered practically a cappella as the two guitarists added a few stingers for good set-up measure. (Lyric changes were to be had there, not all of them easy to make out.) “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” had what amounted to a new — and satisfying! — melody and rhythm, even before its fast pace slowed to a crawl for a half-time finale. “Every Grain of Sand” didn’t depart greatly from its waltz tempo in closing the show, but Dylan added a new piano riff as counterpoint midway through.
The big takeaway from this show, and likely every one on the tour: At 81, Dylan is acting his somber age, and yet, in his fashion, deep at play in the fields of the Lord. As far as these gigs are concerned, even with the near-blackout on stage allowing Dylan to let the mystery be, it’s not dark yet. It’s not even getting there.
Bob Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour” setlist:
1. Watching The River Flow
2. Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)
3. I Contain Multitudes
4. False Prophet
5. When I Paint My Masterpiece
6. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
7. Black Rider
8. My Own Version of You
9. Crossing The Rubicon
10. To Be Alone With You
11. Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
12. Gotta Serve Somebody
13. I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You
14. Melancholy Mood
15. Mother of Muses
16. Goodbye Jimmy Reed
17. Every Grain of Sand