Bob Dylan Stays Modern and Inscrutable at Bayou Music Center

Bob Dylan
Bayou Music Center
May 6, 2015

The last time Bob Dylan & His Band played Houston in 2009 at the Woodlands Pavilion, it was part of a triple bill with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. That show likely attracted the more casual Dylan fan, and scores walked out during his set. They were likely turned off by the lack of hits, or the lack of rock and roll. Or maybe Dylan’s voice, which even his most hardcore fans must admit has been steadily deteriorating for the past 15 years.

That said, there was no such issue last night at the Bayou Music Center, where the near-capacity crowd was much more in tune with the Bob Dylan of today. Not the Folk/Protest King-Wild Mercury Sound-Country Gentlemen-Classic Rock Warhorse of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Or the Traveling Wilbury-Lost Soul-Comeback King of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or even the Elder Statemen-Americana Interpreter of the ‘00s. But what 73-year-old, Riverboat Gambler-resembling Bob Dylan is today.

It is perhaps not coincidental the setlist which found Dylan and his band onstage for right around two hours opened with “Things Have Changed” and then closed with “Stay With Me.” For decades, he has been confounding and confusing both audiences and often his own group with off-the-cuff selections and directions, he’s largely (and uncharacteristically) stayed with essentially the same concert running order for quite a while. And the Bayou City was no exception, which meant, sadly, no surprise insertion of “If You Ever Go to Houston” from Together Through Life.

And he stayed close to his modern output. Of the 20 songs performed, a full 12 came from his last four non holiday-themed studio records – 2006’s Modern Times through this year’s disc of Frank Sinatra-popularized covers, Shadows in the Night. Ironically, many of the live counterparts for this latter-era output sounded better than those recorded versions, including a jaunty “Duquesne Whistle,” a lolling “Spirit on the Water,” the fiery fury of “Pay In Blood,” and the downright lovely “Forgetful Heart”; the last of which earned a standing O from sections of the audience. Another highlight was a spitting mad and venomous “Love Sick” – the closest things came to actually rocking out during the evening.

Only three tracks came from the treasured ‘60s/’70s catalogue, and all featured radically changed arrangements and new, different lyrics on portions. FM radio staple “Tangled Up in Blue” got a gasp of recognition as did Blood on the Tracks’ “Simple Twist of Fate” – though both settled into low key grooves, with Dylan throwing in some “revised” lyrics for each. Even the fabled “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the night’s first encore, was played as a countrified shuffle. Dylan practically defied the audience to sing along – and made it impossible to do so anyway.

It’s also a given that a number of tunes would fall flat. The droning, repetitive blues romp “Early Roman Kings” and a garbled “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” sit at the top of that list. Back to that Constipated Frog Voice. Yes, it can sound like its owner has shredded his esophagus with a cheese grater or gargled Alka Seltzer. It did, primarily early in the show. But as the song unfolded, it actually grew stronger and clearer. And Dylan has learned to use this version of his vocal instrument to his advantage. Making it loud to punch certain lyrics or receding as commentary on others. Or shading words with sincerity or snarkiness as it calls for. Dylan used that tool in the cinematic “Scarlet Town” and rapid-fire almost standup comic delivery of “Long and Wasted Years.”

Something also has to be said about Dylan’s quirkily eccentric stage presence. While his face remained a stoic mask throughout, and he never once addressed or acknowledged the audience or even introduced the band (save for a mumbling about “shuffling off the stage” before intermission – or was it “scuttling off the stage?” “shifting off the stage?”), that didn’t mean he was phoning it in. Delivering every line with some gusto and gripping the microphone stand and tipping it while singing like a 1940s crooner, Dylan was always aware and in the moment. Though his shuffling around the stage made him look (according to Classic Rock Best Friend and Dylanologist Mace Wilkerson) “like a vampire,” he could also do a funny “Bob Bounce” sort of dance during musical interludes. Or strike obvious poses with a crooked elbow and mean lean to the side. At the show’s conclusion, he and the band still formed and picture-perfect still, like the opening of “Family Feud” held the pose, then walked off without a word or wave.

And while he never strapped on a guitar, only whipped out his harp a few times, and played piano sporadically – preferring to mostly just stand and sing – Dylan was a man clearly in full control of the musical proceedings. And what was he frequently either drinking from or running across his mouth behind that side table with the Roman-looking female head bust? We may never know…

Not enough can be said about his now longtime crack backing band. While not rockers by any sense tonight, they artfully navigated country shuffles, pop standards, jazzy interludes, and Americana roots music with elegance and grace. So kudos to Texan lead guitarist (and former Arc Angels member) Charlie Sexton, rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile, and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron (whose crying pedal steel guitar colored many numbers..They all looked as sharp and nattily dressed as their boss; several sported hats. And the ingenious, effective, and simple stage lighting, which caused the show to look like an old-timey vaudeville revue in a grand theatre, was quite effective.

So yes, one can see how Tuesday night’s show might be jolting to someone who has not visited Bobville since the “Jokerman” video. But today’s Bob Dylan is not your father’s or grandfather’s version, or one who is going to win any popularity contests (as if he ever cared), it’s the one that makes the best sense today. And his latest Houston audience was happy to see that Bob, who delivered.

Personal Bias: Strong enthusiast, own most records and 20-plus books on the Bard of Hibbing sit on my shelf. Happy to enjoy show with fellow Dylanologist Mace Wilkerson, with whom I first Bob in 1986 at Astroworld’s Southern Star Amphitheatre with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backing him.

The Crowd: Fortysomethings to seventysomethings, with a surprising number on the younger side of that scale.

Random Notebook Dump: Hey annoying, chatty shit behind me talking and yelling “Ramona!” and “Six Pack to Go!” in my ear wearing the “YUSUF” T-shirt? Guess what? “YUSUCK.”

Overheard in the Crowd: “It’s like a suppository. You just have to push it in and get used to it.”

Bonus Classic Rock Bob Rant!: Finally, an artist took a stand and banned photos and audio/video recordings (through dozens of posted signs and frequent reminders from staff). Thanks, Bob Dylan! I could enjoy a concert without the hugely irksome distraction of the glow of a sea of smartphones and iPads facing back at me that their idiot owners hold aloft and further block my view. Hey jerks, you will NEVER download those blurry, long view photos or play that tinny, crappy video EVER. I wish more indoor venues would follow suit. Hard to enforce, I know – and it does put pressure on floor staff – but it made the show much more enjoyable overall.

Things Have Changed
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Workingman’s Blues #2
Duquesne Whistle
Waiting for You
Pay in Blood
Tangled Up in Blue
Love Sick

High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Forgetful Heart
Spirit on the Water
Scarlet Town
Soon After Midnight
Long and Wasted Years
Autumn Leaves

Blowin’ in the Wind
Stay With Me
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero