“I came to bury, not to raise,” spat Bob Dylan during “Pay In Blood,” seven songs into a fairly stellar set Friday before a full house in the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena.
Indeed, it seemed he meant what he sang, for the show was less about raising the ghost of ’60s-era Bob Dylan than it was about burying anyone’s expectations of the man. Love Dylan or hate him – it most likely doesn’t matter to the man himself. He’s here to inhabit the present moment, and if that means playing a set heavily slanted toward newer songs, deep cuts from throughout his all-but-peerless career, and revered classics in completely revamped guise, then so be it.
“Pay In Blood” is a dark song, one of many such tunes from Dylan’s most recent album, “Tempest.” This is Dylan in hellfire preacher mode – or perhaps, more accurately, world-weary, resigned preacher mode – as the detached observer of the mess man has made for himself. Dylan and his band – freshly minted guitarist Duke Robillard, making his debut with the band at UB, and long-serving sidemen Tony Garnier on bass, George Recilie on drums, Stu Kimball on rhythm guitar, and Denny Herron on pedal steel and mandolin – deliver this particular brand of tune flawlessly, as if they are playing the seedy lounge in Hell’s antechamber. But all of Friday’s show wasn’t doom and gloom.
Indeed, Dylan was downright playful at times, seemingly invigorated by the new blood in the band, and happy – in Dylan’s terms – to be inhabiting this particular moment.
The widely varied set list reflected the ease with which Dylan was conducting himself, moving gracefully between newer songs from his post – “Time Out of Mind” persona, through a few stone-cold classics – the closing salvos of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Ballad Of A Thin Man” offering the strongest examples of the latter.
The show kicked off with a slightly rockabilly-inflected take on “Things Have Changed,” one of Dylan’s strongest late-period songs, and one that reveals a narrator who is “locked in tight” and “out of range,” a man who “used to care/but things have changed.” Anyone still clinging to the notion of Dylan as emblematic ’60s protest singer might’ve finally gotten the clue via this song’s impassioned delivery. If not, the equally bleak world view espoused by “High Water” probably did the trick. Both tunes were played very well, with Robillard jumping in with both feet, embracing his role as primary soloist in the band, even if Dylan did cut several of his solos short with a nod of his straw boater-covered head.
There were a few of the country swing-inflected arrangements Dylan has favored of late, in the form of “Spirit on the Water” and “Thunder on the Mountain,” the latter featuring a lengthy rave-up between Robillard’s guitar, Herron’s pedal steel, and Dylan’s strange but spot-on piano. But happily, compared with last summer’s appearance at Artpark, the swing material didn’t overwhelm the set. Dylan breathed life into “Tangled Up in Blue” as swampy Southern blues – a strong performance even if he did stumble over a few of the verses.
“Early Roman Kings” was an homage to Muddy Waters’ stop-time blues format, while “Visions of Johanna” came draped in blue velvet, delivered in a lilting half-time.
The highest highs during Friday’s show came during its two most rare selections – the epic tale of America gone wrong that is “Blind Willie McTell,” a towering achievement in the Dylan canon; and “What Good Am I?,” a heart-tearing ballad from the oft-overlooked gem that is the “Oh Mercy” album. For long-serving Dylan fans, these two performances alone likely made Friday’s show well worth the 40 bucks.
A very strong Dylan show, then. The addition of Robillard has livened things up a bit, even if the departed Charlie Sexton was surely missed.
The set was smartly paced, and Dylan’s sometimes exuberant manner carried things along at a nice clip. It’s hard to imagine what the many twentysomethings and UB students in attendance made of this living legend.
They were treated to an above-average Dylan show, though, even if they didn’t have anything to compare it to in their own experience.
And, the never-ending tour rolls ever onward. ...