Story by Scott A. Smith
Photo courtesy of Bobdylan.com
For some odd, possibly unexplained reason, the words “Bob Dylan live” always shot fear into my bones.
Despite my concert-junkie nature, I’ve held out for years on seeing America’s most influential singer-songwriter. For more than 15 years, I’ve heard and read the good and bad about Dylan’s gigs. Depending on who you ask, either the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is brilliantly inspired while at the microphone, or he treats his catalog like an unwanted marathon, barking the words in a rushed manner while a seemingly unrehearsed band stumbles to keep up.
But when Dylan’s camp announced that the reclusive tunesmith was coming to the Joint inside the Tulsa Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on May 9, I pulled the metaphorical trigger. I wanted in. Pretty badly.
Thankfully, any fears that fans held for Dylan’s two-hour set at The Joint quickly were crushed, as Dylan seemed at ease while fronting a quintet that could play any musical style. And they just about did. Blissfully caught between the sounds of Wilco, The Derailers, jazz and rockabilly, the musicians were well-rehearsed yet kept the sonics loose and fun without backsliding into contempt-filled sloppiness.
Wearing a light-colored hat and darker colored jacket, shirt and pants, Dylan presented newer tracks that weren’t as well known as some of his hits, but the entire set was impressive. “Things Have Changed,” “She Belongs to Me,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Love Sick,” “Duquesne Whistle,” “Pay in Blood,” “Scarlet Town,” “Early Roman Kings,” “Forgetful Heart,” “Long and Wasted Years,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” and “Workingman Blues No. 2” all were present and accounted for, and each performance drew proud approval from the capacity, 18-and-older audience.
Gaining the most applause was the evening’s engaged take of Dylan’s brilliant, “Tangled Up in Blue,” from 1975. Slightly jazzier and even more Americana than its studio sister version, “Tangled Up in Blue” maintained the upbeat mood for Dylan. It was almost shocking to see Dylan truly enjoy himself on the Tulsa stage, as flashes of a grin recurred on the creative man’s weathered face.
Dylan even took more steps to reveal his playful mood, taking almost exaggerated steps to the beat of the music when he wasn’t at the microphone. Several songs found Dylan slightly swaying from left to right during the instrumental passages, as if the usually stoic musician was allowing himself to actually get lost in the moment.
Like “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate” attained a high-water mark at the show, with Dylan’s voice resting comfortably in the descriptive words. Yes, Dylan’s voice is lower in register and raspier than it was 40 years ago (as are the voices of Elton John, Roger Daltrey, Peter Gabriel and every other singing great), but Dylan’s worldly pipes carried a healthy load of emotion in Tulsa. Somehow, some way, Dylan’s voice sounded higher in pitch at The Joint than this writer initially expected. It was a more-than-pleasant surprise.
A second surprise came in the form of Dylan’s instrumental choices in Tulsa. Like other recent shows, Dylan confined himself to piano and harmonica, opting to not play guitar onstage. At first, I tried to grasp the thought of a guitar-less Dylan being effective in front of a stage curtain. That would be kind of like Jeff Beck without a guitar, right? Well, not exactly. The fact that Dylan played a lot of piano – he does it well, able to execute piano runs in the rock, blues and ballad styles – and he plays deflected the potential of criticism from guitar-loving fans.
Simply put, Dylan must be seen and heard in concert now. When he and these other veteran musical greats are gone, they’ll be gone for good. And besides, the modern-day Dylan is good – really good – in front of an audience.