When Bob Dylan and His Band stopped at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Wednesday (prior to a five-shows-in-six-nights residency at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre, which begins on Friday), the 73-year old legend arrived needing to confront not just the shadow of his own mortality, but his faltering live reputation.
For decades, a Dylan concert usually involved the artist shuffling through his prodigious back catalog, rearranging and rewriting beloved hits into ungainly new configurations. Unfocused and indifferent onstage, Dylan gave the impression that the “Neverending Tour” had become an unending bore.
But from the moment he stood on NJPAC’s stately stage and focused his froggy croak of a voice on his Academy Award-winning “Things Have Changed,” his audience — mostly composed of diehard middle-aged fans, along with a handful of teen and 20-something acolytes — knew that Dylan was back.
These days, Dylan constructs a set list and sticks to it religiously for weeks on end, so his NJPAC show didn’t pack any surprises. But by forgoing his penchant for improvisational riffing on old favorites, Dylan and his band regained a focus and intensity unseen for years. At my last Dylan show in 2005, the band mangled simple three-chord tunes like “Tombstone Blues” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” beyond recognition. No more.
The current set showcases Dylan’s 21st Century catalog, with six songs from his 2012 album “Tempest” as well as recent releases like “Modern Times,” “Together Through Life” and “Time Out of Mind.” Invariably downbeat, blues-based and autumnal, this material imbued the evening with a theme-like vibe quite unlike the prototypical “greatest hits” late-career tour.
Dylan’s crack backing band, featuring Charlie Sexton on lead guitar and the versatile Donnie Herron (switching between banjo, viola, violin, mandolin, pedal and lap steel), kept everything sounding fresh and vital. You’d never guess these players have been doing these same songs night after night.
“She Belongs to Me” from “Bringing It All Back Home” proved to be the only ’60s track in the set (other than “Blowin’ in the Wind,” saved for the encore and rearranged with new chords into a country waltz). One of the night’s few off-notes occurred when Dylan had a senior moment and started playing the wrong harmonica, resulting in a Glenn Branca cacophony instead of the song’s usual melodic bridge; but Dylan coolly walked to the back of the stage, swapped harmonicas, and finished the song without so much as a self-referential chuckle.
Never big on stage patter, the singer conserved his voice throughout the two-hour performance, only saying a quick “thank you, we’ll be right back” before the intermission and an equally curt “thank you” at the end of the night.
“Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” represented 1975’s critically-acclaimed “Blood on the Tracks,” the former transformed into a forlorn country waltz; the fairly obscure “Waiting for You” (written for the soundtrack of 2002’s “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) also found its way into the set. But for the most part, Dylan gave us songs written in the last 10 years, and clearly enjoyed playing them.
He sat behind a grand piano to pound out creditable boogie-woogie for the romping country swing of “Duquesne Whistle” and the barrelhouse blues of “Early Roman Kings.” But it was when Dylan stood alone at center stage, grasping the mike stand, that he really came alive, occasionally “dancing” across the stage (which amounted to an arthritic sashay and shuffle, usually ending with his hand cockily slapped to his hip). The “Tempest” material, which formed the bulk of the night’s second set, proved remarkably compelling, even if “Long and Wasted Years” lacked the drama usually expected from a closing number. Granted, no one expects “Like a Rolling Stone” anymore, but artists are supposed to leave an audience wanting more, not a nap.
Dylan’s voice certainly isn’t what it once was, but it remained strong and tuneful throughout the set, never more so than when he ended the show with “Stay With Me,” a romantic ballad popularized by Frank Sinatra in the ’60s.
“Stay With Me” served two purposes: First, it’s a foreshadowing of Dylan’s next studio album, reportedly a collection of American standards due in 2015. But the song’s melancholy lyrics about commitment and devotion — “Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see, should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me” — seemed not so much a lament to an ex-lover, but a message from the Bard to his audience: Stay with me, and I’ll make it worth your while to come back.
At NJPAC, Bob Dylan gave us a reason to believe.