“I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises.”
The rhyme rang out across Agganis Arena on the night of Nov. 16, accented by the unmistakable singing style of Bob Dylan—icon and iconoclast, ever-changing, ever-constant inventor of popular musical history, and master of folk, rock, country, religious, political, allegorical, epic narrative, and plaintive lyrical song. More recently, Dylan, always surprising, has become a late convert to the performative pleasures and poetry of the American songbook, and, along the way, won the U.S. Medal of Freedom (2012) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2016). The 76-year-old Dylan continues to travel the world over, as he has since 1988, in what has been dubbed by others the “Never Ending Tour.” In this unprecedented, largely unheralded commitment to performing his craft nearly nightly, Dylan remains true to perhaps the greatest constant of his career—in addition to his inexhaustible melodic and lyric gifts—his steadfast dedication to his own interests as a musician.
The many dimensions and voices of Bob Dylan impersonated by others in Todd Haynes’ cleverly titled “I’m Not There” were all there that Thursday night, as Dylan and his band performed now-classic songs spanning the length of his career, from “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Desolation Row” to his more recent Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett covers, such as “Melancholy Mood” and “Once Upon a Time.” Blues and gospel great and civil rights activist Mavis Staples, who first encountered Dylan 55 years ago, was on hand to open for him, and at 78 years old brought the house down with hits like “I’ll Take You There,” as well as anthems of the Selma marches.
While Staples spoke openly to the audience, Dylan took pains to conceal himself (or be himself) in the music: He never spoke, and was hidden during transitions between songs by short blackouts. As a result, from the embittered ex-lover of “It Ain’t Me Babe” to the cool social critic of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” his many selves emerged with startling clarity. His orchestrations, too, changed majestically, from the R&B; feel of “Highway 61” to the Hawaiian sound of the slide guitar in his most recent covers, such as “Why Try and Change Me at All?” to a giddy, country-western mood emphasized by Donnie Heron on mandolin and fiddle.
Illuminated by simple but very effective golden, red and yellow lights positioned across the back of the stage, dressed in a white jacket identical to those of the band, and seated—or standing, bow-legged—for much of the show at a grand piano (Dylan has played keyboards in his concerts for years, supposedly because he can’t find anyone else who will play simply enough), Dylan’s only visible mark of distinction was his trademark halo of wild hair. With the exception of the slanted-mic, Elvis posture he adopted to stand center-stage, Dylan avoided appearing the show headliner entirely.
Although the intelligibility of some of his lyrics were sacrificed to his trademark gravelly voice, certain lines rang out with sudden clarity. To use the comparison between Dylan and the Classics propounded by Richard Thomas of Harvard’s Classics Department (who missed the concert to promote his new book on Dylan at Case Western Reserve University), these extracts, shimmering in their unlikely intelligibility, stood out a little like surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry.
Dylan’s speak-singing of his own songs seemed to grant him even greater interpretive freedom. For someone who conceives of performing as a job like any other—“Anyone with a trade can work as long as they want,” he has said, “A welder, a carpenter, an electrician”—Dylan, remarkably, maintains his sense of creative freedom even when singing songs he has performed since the ’60s. What makes a Dylan concert thrilling to this day is this: After all this time, it is eminently clear that this “song and dance man” for the ages continues to live in his art, plying his craft on a stage, and “searching for phrases.”
—Staff writer Chloe A. Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: Dec. 4, 2017
A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that Prof. Thomas had compared Dylan specifically to Sappho. Prof. Thomas has, in fact, compared Dylan to classical authors, but the Sappho comparison is the writer's. Other editing errors have been amended as well.