Bob Dylan released his Rough and Rowdy Ways album in June 2020, and though he was not able to tour right away because of the pandemic, he launched his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour in November 2021. He is still on it, playing virtually the entire album, as well as rearranged versions of older songs, every night.
The tour came to New Jersey for the first time on Nov. 20, at NJPAC in Newark, with a second show there scheduled to follow on Nov. 21.
I’ve seen many Dylan shows over the last 40 years or so, and they have ranged from great to terrible. But this one, I’m glad to report, was among the best.
Dylan, 82, played piano throughout the night, sitting at center stage with his five bandmates (guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio; bassist Tony Garnier; drummer Jerry Pentecost and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron) in a semi-circle around him. (I’m sorry there is no concert photo to accompany this review, but Dylan did not accommodate press photographers. Or reviewers, for that matter — I bought my own ticket.)
When Dylan first switched from guitar to piano as his main concert instrument — I can’t tell you the exact year, but it’s been a while now — the piano tended to not be prominent in the mix. But now, he must be more confident on the instrument, because it could be heard clearly on every song. (NJPAC’s pristine acoustics makes it a great place to see Dylan.) He even added ornate, jazzy piano fills to the show-closing “Every Grain of Sand”— something I can’t imagine him doing years ago. This song also featured a dynamic harmonica solo, which he played while still seated at the piano.
During the course of the show, Dylan stood up and moved away from the piano only a couple of times, to say something to a band member. He also didn’t talk to the crowd at all between songs, except to introduce band members and say, “It’s nice to be back in the great state of New Jersey, home of The Boss, Joe Pesci … Queen Latifah, Frankie Valli. And of course, Ol’ Blue Eyes.”
He is not a technically perfect singer, of course — at a Dylan concert, these days, some lines are inevitably going to sound garbled or slurred. But by his standards — by which I mean, the way he has been singing in concert for the last few decades — I’d say the vocals were as good as you could expect, quite warm and clear most of the time.
A word of advice to anyone going to the second show at NJPAC, or seeing him elsewhere on this tour: Give Rough and Rowdy Ways a thorough listen beforehand. He played nine of its 10 songs (everything except for “Murder Most Foul”). This was not a drawback for me, at least, because I think Rough and Rowdy Ways is a strong contender for the title of best album of the second half of Dylan’s career.
As far as his older songs … this was definitely not a greatest-hits procession. Though he did sing “Gotta Serve Somebody,” there was no “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Just Like a Woman” in this show. Perhaps to balance the weightiness of the Rough and Rowdy Ways material — and I mean “weighty” in a good way, meaning these are profound, powerful songs — he included some of the lighter material from his past, including “To Be Alone With You” and a funk-rock version of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” He also redid “When I Paint My Masterpiece” in a rootsy, jaunty, eccentrically stopping-and-starting way, and made the pop standard “That Old Black Magic” — which he recorded on his 2016 Fallen Angels album — swing.
While the tone of the show was mostly calm and meditative, there was some rock ‘n’ roll thunder on some songs, including the Rough and Rowdy Ways track, “False Prophet.”
As usual, Dylan often phrased songs differently from what he did in the recorded version, and substituted words or lines here and there. There has never been a rock performer who has been less reverent toward his own material. Again, that’s a compliment, not a criticism: That approach has kept things fresh for him, and opened up new ways to appreciate his songs, over and over, in the course of his career.
The crowd seemed rapt from start to finish. Perhaps it was because Dylan himself seemed focused and engaged. Perhaps it had to do with the good acoustics, which helped to create an intimate atmosphere. Another contributing factor was probably that cellphones had to be locked up prior to entering the hall (concert-goers could keep them but they had to be placed in a pouch that could only be unlocked after the show).
But whatever the reason, it felt like everyone was on the same page, basking in the opportunity to hear a master at work, one more time.
Here is the Nov. 20 NJPAC setlist. Songs in bold are from Rough and Rowdy Ways.
“Watching the River Flow”
“Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”
“I Contain Multitudes”
“When I Paint My Masterpiece”
“My Own Version of You”
“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”
“Crossing the Rubicon”
“To Be Alone With You”
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
“Gotta Serve Somebody”
“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”
“That Old Black Magic”
“Mother of Muses”
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed”
“Every Grain of Sand”
Dylan’s second NJPAC show takes place Nov. 21 at 8 p.m.; visit ticketmaster.com.
Click HERE to see a complete list of Dylan’s New Jersey concerts, over the years.
Click HERE to see my picks (with videos) for my favorite songs from each of his albums.
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