It can’t be easy being Bob Dylan. Whether gladly or not, it is his lot to suffer fools because pretty much everyone else on the planet is downright simple compared to him. So he keeps a lonely vigil, “still on the road headin’ for another joint” while doing things that seem perversely bizarre, like releasing an album of Frank Sinatra standards – his latest effort, the weirdly wonderful “Shadows in the Night.”
Saturday night at Durham Performing Arts Center, the only “Shadows in the Night” song Dylan played was “Stay With Me” as encore finale. But rather than songs, what he replicated from that album was its mood throughout the entire 19-song set.
The venue was transformed into an after-hours salon with Dylan as interpretive singer, offering up spectral late-night songs to the cosmos. It was like taking Sinatra’s aesthetic for a spin through Dylan’s own old, weird America, conjuring up a vibe that was both drowsy and spooky.
At age 73, Dylan has become something like an old jazz or blues master whose music has found its own way over the years, and he just follows along. If anyone came hoping for either nostalgia or a photo opportunity, that was a mistake. Ushers very strictly enforced the venue’s no-photo edict (Dylan also did not permit the News & Observer to take pictures), while the set consisted almost entirely of newer material from recent albums.
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While there were a handful of oldies, including “She Belongs to Me” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan drastically recast them to the point of being almost but not quite unrecognizable. What dominated the set was Dylan’s most recent all-original album, 2012’s “Tempest” with a half-dozen songs.
Guitarist Charlie Sexton ably led the five-piece backup band, anchored by longtime bassist Tony Garnier (currently in his 26th year of service on Dylan’s ongoing “Never Ending Tour”). Nobody sang except for Dylan, who strode onstage in a duster and riverboat gambler hat.
Dylan spent about half the show at the center-stage microphone and about half at the piano, plus occasional blows on the harmonica, his face shadowed by his hat and the dim lighting. Of course, he ceased anything like conventional singing years ago. But the man’s gravelly yowl can still be incredibly emotive, giving just the right poison-pen touch to the likes of “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Love Sick” and “Pay in Blood.”
The first set of the two-hour show was more engaging. Instead of an opening act, we got the sound of a gong, the lights going down and Dylan coming out to snarl “Things Have Changed” – quite possibly the nastiest song that’s ever won an Academy Award. The second set lagged toward the end, with more than one song where Dylan’s piano-playing seemed to wander a bit too far off the track.
Still, the second set hit a great peak with “Early Roman Kings,” one of the “Tempest” songs and a killer variation on the Muddy Waters “Mannish Boy” classic-blues riff. For whatever it was worth, this was the closest the lighting came to normal all night. So Dylan allowed us the clearest look at himself on a song excoriating the robber-baron class, although the key line might have been a throw-away toward the end:
“I ain’t dead yet.”