As Bob Dylan croaked and crooned through a bewildering performance last night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, it was difficult not to feel a sense of displacement. At heart, this was a rock show that overshadowed much of his famed folk pedigree. The songs, however, often sounded like they were musically and thematically caught in a time warp.
A fascinating but askew case in point came late in the 100 minute show with the fittingly titled “Long and Wasted Years.” One of four works pulled from 2012’s “Tempest” album (Dylan’s most recent recording of original compositions), it detailed a protagonist forsaken by love and family and, as a result, left to feel suitably scattered in a desert-esque purgatory. “Whadaya doin’ out there in the sun anyway?” sang Dylan, 75, with bemused, fractured glee. “Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out?”
It was a bit removed from the socially penetrating narratives that likely won Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature this fall. Or was it? Earlier in the set, he ripped through the title song to 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album, a work where everyone from Biblical sages to bluesmen to gamblers converged on a stretch of road running from Minnesota to Louisiana. A half-century on, even with the purposely scrambled version Dylan served up last night, the song constructs a Twilight Zone of sorts that assembles characters from varying times and circumstances.
Dylan never addressed his recent honor from the stage, though he did break his silence over the mid-October honor over the weekend, telling the London Telegraph it was an, “amazing, incredible,” honor and that he plans on attending the December Nobel ceremony, “if it’s at all possible.”
In terms of repertoire, Tuesday, Dylan focused on either very early songs or very recent ones. That meant a three decade period (from roughly 1966 to 1996) was ignored, save for a coarse, melodically rewired reading of the “Blood on the Tracks” romantic meditation “Tangled Up in Blue.” None of that mattered, however, as pretty much everything sounded antique. The recent works from “Tempest,” together with the dark jubilee tune “High Water (for Charley Patton)” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” harkened back to an almost minstrel minded era rooted in blues variations. Music from his newest recordings (2015’s “Shadows in the Night” and 2016’s “Fallen Angels”) were actually covers of Sinatra-era pop tunes. Finally, the early Dylan songs within the set, most of which were penned 50 or more years ago, were, by definition, of a different vintage.
The Sinatra-inspired material was the big curiosity as it reined in the corrosive wheeze that is Dylan’s usual weapon of vocal attack. No one is going to mistake him for ol’ Blue Eyes, mind you. But it was nonetheless intriguing to watch Dylan grab the microphone stand and lean to the side to play crooner on classics like “I Could Have Told You,” “All or Nothing at All” and, perhaps fittingly, “Autumn Leaves.” But in the hands of his band, particularly pedal steel guitarist and BR5-49 alumnus Donnie Herron, the tunes sounded less like pop relics and more like mystic prairie lullabies.
As for his own back catalog, Dylan has always considered it ripe for plundering. By playing piano for most of the performance with a suggestion of ragtime and barrelhouse color, Dylan awarded some of his more foreboding works — in particular, “Desolation Row” — a curiously hopeful glow.
But when the setlist turned to a “Tempest” tune like “Pay in Blood,” all bets were off. The sentiments went adrift again with a rhythmic drive as hardened and unforgiving as the lyrics. “I pay in blood,” Dylan sang, briefly breaking into a toothy grin. “But not my own.”
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.