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 justthe shadow of his own mortality, but his faltering live reputation.
For decades, a Dylan concert usually involved the artist shuffling through his prodigious backcatalog, rearranging and rewriting beloved hits into ungainly new configurations. Unfocused andindifferent onstage, Dylan gave the impression that the “Neverending Tour” had become an unendingbore.
But from the moment he stood on NJPAC’s stately stage and focused his froggy croak ofa voice on his Academy Award-winning “Things Have Changed,” his audience —mostly composed ofdiehard middle-aged fans, along with a handful of teen and 20-something acolytes —knew thatDylan was back.
These days, Dylan constructs a set list and sticks to it religiously for weeks on end, so his NJPAC showdidn’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, theband mangled simple three-chord tunes like “Tombstone Blues” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes aTrain 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-likevibe 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 freshand 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 ’60strack in the set (other than“Blowin’ in the Wind,” saved for the encore and rearranged with new chords into a country waltz). Oneof the night’s few off-notes occurred when Dylan had a senior moment and started playing the wrongharmonica, resulting in a Glenn Branca cacophony instead of the song’s usual melodic bridge; but Dylancoolly walked to the back of the stage, swapped harmonicas, and finished the song without so much as aself-referential chuckle.
Never big on stage patter, the singer conserved his voice throughout the two-hour performance, onlysaying 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 theTracks,” 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 intothe set. But for the most part, Dylan gave us songs written in the last 10years, and clearly enjoyedplaying them.
He sat behind a grand piano topound out creditable boogie-woogie for the rompingcountry swing of “Duquesne Whistle” and the barrelhouse blues of “Early Roman Kings.” But it waswhen 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 hishand cockily slapped to his hip). The “Tempest” material, which formed the bulk of the night’s secondset, proved remarkably compelling, even if “Long and Wasted Years” lacked the drama usually expectedfrom a closing number. Granted, no one expects “Like a Rolling Stone” anymore, but artists aresupposed 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 byFrank 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 aboutcommitment 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 tocome back.
At NJPAC, Bob Dylan gave us a reason to believe.