The last time I saw Bob Dylan at the Beacon Theater in 2018, it was the kind of performance that’s known as “phoning it in”. Besides seeming disengaged, he played his “can you guess what song this is?” game with his devoted audience. After a few bars of unfamiliar melody and garbled vocals, you figure out you hear “Things Have Changed” and not “Highway 61 Revisited.” But a pandemic-induced layoff from his so-called Never Ending Tour and the release last year of a brilliant new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, his best since Love and Theft (2001), seem to have recharged the 80-year-old, self-described song and dance man. I’d also be remiss not to mention the superb, streamed concert film Shadow Kingdom he released in June. Returning to the Beacon for three sold-out nights in November 2021, he and his current band put on an often captivating show that concentrated on the songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways.
The Covid protocol at the Beacon (vaccine proof and ID checks) combined with the usual airport-like security measures (bags inspected, pockets emptied, metal detectors) meant that Dylan was well into his opening number, “Watching the River Flow”, when we reached our seats. I already was in a grumpy mood because, to our surprise, there was no subway service from our Queens neighborhood into Manhattan (thanks, MTA!), necessitating a call to Uber. But when Dylan and the band kicked off the fourth number, “False Prophet”, a grin spread across my masked face. He sang the second-verse couplet that wittily mixes Greek and rock ‘n’ roll mythology— “Hello Mary Lou / Hello Miss Pearl / My fleet-footed guides / From the underworld”—with sly humor and perfect enunciation. In too many past shows, he’s mumbled his lyrics, tossed them off as if they annoyed him.
But on Saturday night, he savored the words, sang them clearly and with careful yet flexible phrasing. His vocals reminded me of the performances in Shadow Kingdom, especially the knockout version of “Tombstone Blues”, which had the spouse and me as giddy as the teenagers we were when we first heard “Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll / Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole.”
Dylan’s study of the Frank Sinatra songbook, and maybe the forced hiatus from touring, seem to have done wonders for his singing. Dare I say that at 80, Dylan sounds better than he has in years? I do. He growled and rasped, which was particularly effective on bluesy material like “Early Roman Kings” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”. But he also crooned, sustained notes, sang ahead of and behind the beat, like Francis Albert. It’s an older man’s voice, but Dylan’s improved technique and his care with his lyrics compensate for its limitations.
On the meditative “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”, which worked better on stage than I thought it might, he delivered the verses in a sprechstimme, conjuring up the island city as a real place, with a history (“Truman had his White House there”), as a spiritual metaphor (“Key West is the place to be / If you’re looking for immortality”), and where bizarre things happen to innocents (“Twelve years old / They put me in a suit / Forced me to marry a prostitute”). The audience hung on every word, applauding certain lines (that happened throughout the show). Who else but Dylan could compel that kind of rapt attention to lyrics?
When Dylan rearranged older material, it never felt gratuitous or that he was changing things up just to keep himself from being bored. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” morphed from country swing to 12-bar blues (at its conclusion, a guy a few rows down stood up and gave a “we’re not worthy” bow). “Gotta Serve Somebody” rocked hard and was an audience favorite. “Early Roman Kings”, taken at a slower tempo than the version on Dylan’s previous album, Tempest (2012), was greasy juke joint funk.
But it was the Rough and Rowdy material that dominated the evening, comprising eight of the show’s 17 selections. Performing nearly an entire album (the only omissions were “Crossing the Rubicon” and the 17-minute “Murder Most Foul”) is not standard Dylan procedure. On prior tours, he’s focused mainly on his back catalog, including maybe three or four songs from whatever new recording he had out at the time. My guess is he knows the new songs are some of his best, and he’s proud of them.
Still, the man is 80, and there was an autumnal quality to the show, notwithstanding its rougher and rowdier moments. The stage lighting was low, the set design was in the earth tones of his latest album’s cover art (dark red drapes behind the band, browns and pale yellows in the illuminated floor), and Dylan and the band members all wore black. The players on this tour are longtime bassist Tony Garnier; Donnie Herron, pedal steel guitar, fiddle, and accordion; two guitarists, Bob Britt and Doug Lancio; and drummer Charley Drayton.
Dylan, slightly stooped, remained at his piano for nearly the entire set (he never touched a guitar or harmonica), gingerly stepping out from behind it for the Sinatra cover, “Melancholy Mood”. The young and even middle-aged Dylan could be a chatty performer, but stage patter hasn’t been part of his act for years. He didn’t even introduce the band members. But he did remark, right before the show’s last number (“Every Grain of Sand” lovely), that it was “good to be back in the Big Apple again”.
Unlike past tours, there were no encores. As we were filing out, a man exclaimed, “I loved every second of it! But couldn’t we have one more song? Just one more?”