A Nightly Ritual: Bob Dylan's Never-Changing Set List

(Press photo)

Bob Dylan's current show is a book musical without the book, crafted by the American Shakespeare.

16 May 2015, Columbus, Ohio—As if the place and date have anything to do with it. Do they? If you've seen Bob Dylan perform live in the past year or so, you've heard the same set they heard in Seattle, Washington and Rostock, Germany, with Dylan eventually inserting two songs from his standards album, Shadows in the Night, "Stay With Me" in late 2014 and "Autumn Leaves" in late April of this year. Some devoted fans, presumably Bobcats who follow the tour, have grumbled about the unchanging song choices in Dylan's set. The rock tradition is to value surprise in a show: not knowing what song is next, the feeling that anything can happen.

Perched in the front of the Ohio Theatre's balcony, I couldn't care less about all that. Judging by the excited voices nearby, I don't think anyone else cares, either. This will all be new to us—and nothing, in fact, guarantees Dylan will play the same set. Even though he does. The show might be a ritual for Dylan, but for me, who knows?

Set One: This Ain't Nostalgia

"Things Have Changed" and "She Belongs to Me"—A gong sounds three times, the house lights dim, Stu Kimball plays an acoustic ramble as Dylan and the rest of the band takes the stage. Hardcore Dylan fans who travel from show to show might be disappointed in the sameness of the set, but "Things Have Changed", rollicking along with Dylan standing center stage, sends the titular message and dares us to figure it out.

On the surface, the meaning is clear: this isn't going to be an exercise in nostalgia. Of the 20 songs to be played tonight, only two are from his '60s records, two from his '70s records. Aside from the covers, everything else is 1997 onward, six of them from his most recent album of originals, 2012's Tempest. Naturally, Dylan undercuts the simplicity of that message when the band kicks into a stately, pastoral version of "She Belongs to Me", from Bringing It All Back Home. But maybe it is simple: "She's got everything she needs / She's an artist, she don't look back." "Dylan's sensitivity to pop comes straight out of his folk background," wrote the inestimable rock critic Ellen Willis, and this performance could be Exhibit A, even if it sounds like a country song.

"Beyond Here Lies Nothing"—Hot stuff. Dylan moves to the piano stage left and sits on a bench positioned perpendicularly, like he's straddling a horse. Now and then, moved by the rhythm, he kicks his leg out. Piano was his first instrument; his first love, as you probably know, wasn't folk music but early rock 'n' roll. I think of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, larger-than-life figures who looked like they'd explode at any minute precisely because they were anchored to their pianos. Sometimes, when you watch footage of them, it seems like they're playing a game of how-far-can-I-get-away-from-this-thing-without-screwing-up-the-song. The piano was their lover and foe. Dylan's not nearly so animated, of course, but he knows the trick employed by gospel singers, blues singers, and Tom Waits: when you stay still, a flick of the wrist can be devastatingly dramatic.

Dylan plays a decent solo, then doubles up with Donnie Herron on the lap steel. Coincidentally, "Beyond Here Lies Nothing" is a song I'd like to hear Tom Waits cover.

"Workingman's Blues #2"—Merle Haggard has a song called "Working Man Blues", a by-the-numbers country dust-up with the lyrics, "I'll be working long as my two hands are fit to use," a sentiment I'm betting Dylan admires. He's not fading privately into the twilight, and he's not ashamed of being old. A few weeks after this show, he'll turn 74, and at this point in his career, he's closer than ever to being the "song and dance man" he joked about being in 1965.

He transcends that, of course. That's the point, but maybe in the opposite way you'd expect. It isn't about being the greatest. To the man or woman who gets up every day and works a job that's just a job, the point of the job isn't the work, it's the dignity and self-worth that come from how you work the job. And maybe those are the same things Dylan finds in this set list, night in, night out. He clearly believes in it. He can test himself against it. On bad nights, he can lean on it.

Tonight he returns to center stage for this song, singing with his feet spread apart like a veteran boxer too tired to care anymore about the correct form. (Explaining that he didn't mean to insult Haggard in that infamous Musicares speech, Dylan told Bill Flanagan he was talking about the past: "It was more intense back then and things hit harder and hurt more.") When the band plays a beautiful interlude, Dylan wanders toward George Recile's drum kit stage right, puts his hand on his hip, puts it down, and walks around a little more, waiting for his shift to begin, for the bell to ring.

"Duquesne Whistle"—After a shaky intro where Dylan's piano sounds like it's playing a different song than Donnie Heron on pedal steel and Charlie Sexton on electric guitar, the band rights itself in the song's carefree swing beat. Later, they nail the instrumental breakdown. It's good to see Sexton back in the band; along with bassist Tony Garnier, who's been playing with Dylan forever, Sexton was part of Dylan's turn-of-the-millennium band with Larry Campbell and drummer David Kemper, which I still think is the best of Dylan's contemporary bands.

Before the show, I corrected the two guys next to me who were calling him Martin Sexton, who is a totally fine person to get confused with. Go find his song "Glory Bound" right now. Charlie Sexton's playing is not as show-stopping as it was in 2001; the songs don't call for it. Instead he textures his parts, and some of his solos sound like chord clusters, more like a jazz guitarist.

What will stay with me more than specific vocal phrasings or guitar licks is what Greil Marcus called in The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs a "web of affinities," and what Sean Wilentz said in Bob Dylan in America: "He reclaims the present by reclaiming the past." There's nothing outdated about the music Dylan is playing today. Neither is it timeless, some universalist gobbledygook. It reaches out and touches all parts of American history and music, catching it all in its web.

There's a word that's being overused in academia these days, but it fits here: "palimpsest". Imagine a piece of paper on which many drawings have been made, each of them erased and drawn over. You can still see the drawings "below" whatever happens to be on the paper at the moment; you can see the past as you see the present. Wilentz says something similar about Modern Times: "Dylan created a new magic zone where it was 1933 and 1863 and 2006 all at once." In other words, a sense of simultaneity. "Duquesne Whistle" ends up being quite the crowd pleaser.

"Waiting For You"/"Pay in Blood"—Dylan has a small but stellar recent track record of songs written for films: "Things Have Changed" for Wonder Boys, "Cross the Green Mountain" for Gods and Generals, "Tell Ol' Bill" for North Country. "Waiting For You," included in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, isn't quite the same caliber; its melody feels wrote and slight. Tonight the song is flattened out even more, the urgent waltz rhythm of the recording softened into a stroll through the town square, Dylan's vocals straying into whispers.

"Pay in Blood" is one of Dylan's recent body of songs about threatening to kick your ass. Dylan returns to center stage and growls, "Sooner or later, you'll make a mistake/I'll put you in chains that'll never break." This is the fruition of that boxer's stance. With a pair of binoculars generously leant to me by the guy sitting next to me, I can make out the filigree design running up Dylan's pants legs, his cowboy boots and tan hat, all of which help me imagine he's the patriarch of a bootlegging southern clan, dispensing a certain brand of wisdom—"I pay in blood, but not my own"—and surrounded by toughs like that crew trailing him in the "Duquesne Whistle" video.

Occasionally he puts his hand in his black jacket's pocket during a Sexton solo. It's great theatre. The crowd is hooting. Here, as elsewhere, the band does an excellent job holding back under the verses, letting Dylan roll and yaw the vocal lines. Recile has mastered how to play tight and snappy without being loud.

"Tangled Up in Blue"—What does it mean that a harmonica solo can be transporting? It's a strange thing to say. It's a strange instrument, when you get right down to it, a three-inch combination of metal and wood that can sound like a tornado siren, a train, a voice crying in an alley. In the '60s you could have marked Dylan's drifting away from the folk revival movement by the way he played the harmonica, graduating from the perfunctory solos in "Blowin' in the Wind" to the swoops, warbles, moans, and bursts of mayhem in the version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 or the "Visions of Johanna" you hear on The Bootleg Series vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 from the infamous show at Manchester Free Trade Hall.

Tonight, in this great arrangement of a song with lyrics that seem to change every year, and even judged against the gentle, conversational singing—"She was soooooon to be divorced," he sings—it's the harp solo that stands out. Dylan paces around a note or two, jumps up, retreats, then builds into a frenzy. He finishes, walks over to the piano, and plays the rest of the number there.

"Love Sick"—The quarter notes that start "Love Sick" and start Time Out of Mind were an immediate jolt when I first heard the album in 1997. His last batch of original songs had been Under the Red Sky in 1990, generally a clunker, and in the meantime he'd released two albums of folk covers, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Excited as I was, I didn't pick up the album when it came out in September. A close friend of mine was fighting leukemia, it wasn't going well, and I was visiting him every day. He was 23. Talk about a world gone wrong.

I'd heard that the Dylan record was dark, even morbid. I couldn't handle that. Weeks after my friend passed away, I was driving down to Kent, Ohio on a country two-lane at night sometime in late October or early November, and I finally put the album on. Those quarter notes were the first thing I heard.

Tonight, "Love Sick" starts with Dylan standing in the dark. Even at a faster tempo, the song still sounds like the end of the world. Sometimes I think it's addressed to God. There's no reason why it can't be.

Intermission: The Gaudy Joke

According to its website, the Ohio Theatre was designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb to be "a palace for the average man." The Spanish-Baroque style borders on the gaudy when it's all lit up, a fitting tension for a theatre that was on the Loews vaudeville circuit. It brings the ornate down to the ordinary person's level but keeps it grand, turns opulence into a joke we can get in on. It's the perfect setting for a Bob Dylan show.

Legend and anomaly, worshipped and spoofed, known and unknown, Dylan is a performer who has outlived and outpaced every story written about him. Lazy journalists still fall back on that poet/voice of a generation crap, but he's closer to being the American Shakespeare. Restless, prolific, concerned with paupers and kings, histories, tragedies, and farces—he's still one of America's funniest musicians—an aesthetic thief, a persona cloaked in mystery and a working artist who leads a company, someone who understands that language is a kind of music, music a kind of language, and that words are always speech, Dylan is more playwright and actor than he is a poet. For all of the disguises he's worn throughout the years—"I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask," he told his Philharmonic Hall audience in 1964, as foreboding a bit of stage patter as he's ever uttered—most of the time he is utterly himself in the songs.

When you see a traveling production of a play, you probably don't hope they'll abandon Scene Five and replace it with an obscure gem from a previous play. If it's a musical—Oklahoma!, for instance—you don't wonder if maybe they'll do "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" as a four-on-the-floor punk rock song. You go to hear the songs, to experience the story. Theatre evolved from ritual. The variability in theatre is nuanced within certain limitations; no performance of the same play by the same company night after night is exactly the same, but the differences are minimal. They're supposed to be minimal. Otherwise your lighting op is going to go nuts.

Dylan's current show is a book musical without the book, crafted by a playwright who acts out a story with his company designed to play as well in Columbus as in Seattle. In this way, it's not much different from plenty of other touring acts, but we're likely to think of pop music examples first, i.e., the latest Katy Perry Spectacular, laden with choreography and lighting and so much coordination that there's little room for chance. Pop is usually seen as an expression of freedom while not terribly free itself; its greatest performers make you forget the tight management of the show, or they find a way to blend structure and improvisation.

Although plenty of rock bands playing on large stages do the same thing, rock music, much thanks to Dylan, is perceived as freedom at its very core, expression and method joined. And Dylan, as an icon, represents the essence of that freedom for a lot of people: absolute artistic independence, change, the new. Yet here he is, placing himself within the constrictions of the same set every night. The disappointment of hardcore fans reveals their desire, I think, for a rock 'n' roll show. For the spirit of rock 'n' roll. In a way, they just want Dylan to act out a very specific kind of drama. He's written a different one for himself.

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