Classic Rock Corner

Last Night: Bob Dylan at the Smart Financial Centre

Bob Dylan's management does not allow press or public photography during his shows. So here's a bunch of T-shirts that were for sale in the lobby!
Bob Dylan's management does not allow press or public photography during his shows. So here's a bunch of T-shirts that were for sale in the lobby! Photo by Bob Ruggiero
OCTOBER 14, 2018

First off, there are a few things that the audience member – or reviewer – needs to know about a Bob Dylan show in 2018.

That the set list will not be an easy audience-pleasing greatest hits rundown. That he will radically change arrangements to even his most familiar numbers and throw in new lyrics on a whim not heard on the record version. And that his voice will be raspy, possibly croaky.

But wait, that list could also serve as a primer for a Bob Dylan show in 2008, or 1998, or 1988. In fact, Bob Dylan has made something of a specialty confounding the expectations of both his audience – die hard and casual – and any music critics named Mr. Jones or otherwise. 

After all, this was the guy who chose to answer the hue and cry for him to take up a political rock mantle and be Spokesman of His Generation at the height of the counterculture movement by…releasing Nashville Skyline, a laid back album of country music. Or playing more than two years of live shows consisting mostly of his newly-
written gospel songs when he Found Jesus. 

click to enlarge Dylanologist Mace Wilkerson after the show. - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Dylanologist Mace Wilkerson after the show.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
And he’s always had a bit of the trickster, telling early interviewers at the start of his career that he was an orphan. That is, until a national news magazine found Mr. and Mrs. Abram Zimmerman (not Dylan) alive and well in Hibbing, Minnesota. Not surprisingly, he also did not work at a circus, a ranch, or ride the rails as a hobo in his early years — aspects which found their way into Todd Haynes’ wonderfully offbeat 2007 film meditation on Dylan’s life, I’m Not There).

But back to today. Close watchers had some cause for excitement when on dates this past summer of his Never Ending Tour, he began jiggering with a set list that had remained largely untouched for a number of years, heavy on lesser known or more recent material. When he last came to Houston in 2015, only four of his 20 numbers pre-dated the year 1990. He’s now more than doubled that number – and included some of his best known material. Though Bob being Bob, they didn’t sound the same.

Slowed down takes on “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” nicely sounded more wistful than boastful, and the latter tune was especially well served. The civil rights anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a country waltz complete with pedal steel guitar solo. And “Gotta Serve Somebody” – while missing the distinct female backing chorus – arrived with a large chunk of new lyrics. Or from what could be discerned.

That’s not a knock on the 77-year-old Dylan’s voice, which people have been complaining about since his 1962 debut. While in the past decade he’s been known to make the noise of a phlegmatic frog, this show found him vocalizing in the clearest and smoothest (by his standards) of his past three visits to Houston.

He’s been settled into a talk-singing pattern, with a dash of crooning (undoubtedly sharpened by his last three studio releases, which have been all covers of tunes by Frank Sinatra or from the Great American Songbook).

It didn’t always work. The fury of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Like a Rolling Stone” were neutered with odd tempo changes. And the newer “Pay in Blood” was not worth any cost. On the plus side of the 21st century material, “Cry Awhile” sounded like a fine lost Link Wray track, “Early Roman Kings” rose above its standard blues shuffle, and “Thunder on the Mountain” had a thick, uptempo and exciting groove.

click to enlarge This picture was taken before the show started, so you can at least see some cool stage lighting. - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
This picture was taken before the show started, so you can at least see some cool stage lighting.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
In fact, “Thunder” was one of the few numbers in which his longtime backing band – Tony Garnier (bass), George Recile (drums), Donnie Herron (violin, mandolin, steel guitar), and Texas favorite Charlie Sexton (guitar) really were able to cut loose.

One wishes that Dylan would let these players step out of the Americana center lane and into the ditch of rock more often. And all of these guys are stone cold ace players, always serving the song. Sexton and Recile in particular stood out.

Like every single other Houston Bob Dylan show I’ve been to – stretching back to the summer of 1986 when he joined Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Astroworld’s Southern Star Ampitheatre on the “True Confessions” tour – I was accompanied by my buddy, Mace Wilkerson. He’s the Dylanologist that got hooked with 1983’s Infidels and showed me the way. He even sang his own professionally-recorded version of Dylan’s ballad “Make You Feel My Love” as a 50th birthday gift for his wife, Lupe.

“He sounded the best I’ve heard in the past 20 years or so. Tight band, eclectic set list, and some good dance moves at the end!” Wilkerson noted on the drive home. Though he greatly regrets choosing to go to the bathroom just prior to the start of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

As has been his m.o. in recent years, Dylan spent the vast majority of the show behind his piano, alternately playing standing up or sitting down, and occasionally blowing harmonica. Not once did he strap on a guitar or say a single word to the audience.

Only twice did he saunter to center stage (and even them pretty far back) to sing on solid versions of “Scarlet Town” and “Love Sick.” And even then he seemed to be actually camping it up, holding his standing mike diagonally to him like a ‘40s crooner or ‘50s rocker, then standing with his left arm jauntily crooked to his waist in a jerky movement.

For the show closer, Dylan played the stinging piano notes to signal the coming of one of his most acerbic numbers, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Ostensibly a takedown of his staid elders in the ‘60s and especially (gulp!) music writers, he says witheringly “there’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”

What was happening last night was likely not what the casual Dylan fan or listener would have liked or expected. But if you were a follower of a deeper groove or catalog cuts, the joys were plentiful.

Set List
Things Have Changed
It Ain’t Me, Babe
Highway 61Revisited
Simple Twist of Fate
Cry a While
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Honest with Me
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
Scarlet Town
Make You Feel My Love
Pay in Blood
Like a Rolling Stone
Early Roman Kings
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
Love Sick
Thunder on the Mountain
Soon After Midnight
Gotta Serve Somebody

Blowin’ in the Wind
Ballad of a Thin Man
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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