That Bob Dylan can still surprise us at the age of 71 is a fact to treasure. Certainly, over the course of his 50-year career, the man has lost his way from time to time, settling into auto-pilot mode and occasionally "phoning in" his shows. But a sold-out crowd at Artpark in Lewiston on Thursday evening was treated to a performance during which rock's greatest lyricist and most mercurial, inscrutable personality vigorously explored the outer boundaries of his own music, challenging himself, his audience and his band in the process.
Dylan has a new album, "Tempest," due to drop on Tuesday, but true to form, he didn't offer a single note of this new music instead coughing up 90-plus minutes of often wildly revamped and reimagined songs from his back pages. More often than not, these songs were translated through new vocal melodies, transformed rhythms and grooves, and radically altered constructions.
Dylan seemed to be taking devilish delight from the whole process, strutting about the stage like a hybrid of the Mad Hatter and a vaudevillian sideshow emcee, indulging in the often rich possibilities of his wildly inventive vocal phrasing as if he was as surprised by what was coming through the PA speakers as we were.
Opening with a roughshod but swinging take on "Watching the River Flow," Dylan then led the band into the evergreen "It Ain't Me Babe," the once folk-based piece now transmogrified into a rolling, piano-led waltz. This is Dylan's latest parlor trick - he arrived with a grand piano in tow, for the first time playing most of his sets seated behind the ivory 88s.
Unsurprisingly, Dylan the pianist is a wildly inventive proposition. He consistently took chances throughout Thursday's show, and as is always the case where risk-taking is concerned, sometimes he soared and sometimes he crashed to the ground. "Things Have Changed," for instance, found Dylan starting the tune standing before the microphone at center stage, but after merely the first of the song's many verses, he hopped back behind the piano, offering strange contrapuntal melodic commentary on his own vocal phrasing, while bandmembers Charlie Sexton, George Recile, Tony Garnier, Stu Kimball and Donnie Heron watched him with laser focus. No one seemed sure where all of this was gonna go, which is, of course, a big part of the fun.
"Tangled Up In Blue" featured Dylan's first proper piano solo of the evening, and - wait for it - it was a completely strange and yet somehow beautiful and fitting piece of musical commentary. He messed with the lyrics, too, riffing gleefully on the tale of star-crossed lovers where he'd often in the past simply mumble through when he forgot the words temporarily. This was telling - when Dylan is in a good mood, which he certainly appeared to be on Thursday, we get a much better show.
And we get a better selection of songs, too; Thursday's highlight was surely "Lovesick," the lead-off track from Dylan's milestone ""Time Out Of Mind" album. Guitarist Sexton led the way on this one, its haunted, disfigured reggae strut helmed by his sharp chordal stabs. Dylan sounded absolutely possessed here, a crazed carnival barker stumbling through a post-apocalypse wasteland and spitting out his observations. This was prime modern-era Dylan - part theatre, part poetry, part blues lament, the singer acting the part of the hoary old wedding guest in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
Dylan seemed to be taking perverse delight in messing with his musicians. Interestingly, he didn't offer the finest soloist on the stage - guitarist Sexton, who is simply a beast of a player, though he is kept on a short, chordal-comping leash in the present-day Dylan band - a single opportunity to take the spotlight. Sexton didn't solo once - instead, Dylan gave the nod to the able but unremarkable Kimball, or grabbed the solo spotlight for his own piano, blues harp, or - and this got interesting folks, - guitar. Dylan manned the latter for another big surprise, the torrid "Simple Twist of Fate.". Dylan grabbed ahold of a major scale thematic motif which he clung to doggedly, weaving it rather sloppily between his vocal phrases. Then he took a solo. To suggest that Dylan plays electric guitar like a 10 year-old who has just discovered the instrument might be over-stating things. But not by much. Somehow, his halting, jagged phrasing and odd note choices combine to serve the songs very well. Dylan's playing is ragged, but right.
So, too, the voice - a devastated rasp that somehow lends a creepy verisimilitude to the songs themselves, to the point where it's safe to suggest that no other voice would serve the music as well.
After so many left turns and unexpected detours throughout the set, Dylan led the band onto firm ground to ride out the evening with the revered classics "Ballad Of A Thin Man," "Like A Rolling Stone," "All Along the Watchtower" - radically altered, of course, every damn one of them - and finally laid us gently down with an elegiac "Blowin' In the Wind."
This was, in all, the strongest show Dylan has played in the Western New York area since he opened for the Dead at Darien Lake a decade back. Roll on, Bob.