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Friday, Nov. 9, 2012

Bob Dylan w/ Mark Knopfler @ BMO Harris Bradley Center

Nov. 8, 2012

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Bob Dylan is inarguably an American icon, one whose music has transcended the passage of time, but for many people he’ll forever be a symbol of the promise and problems of the ’60s, which begs the question: Who, or what, is Dylan in the 21st century? Most of his contemporaries are, to put it bluntly, dead, and what few ’60s iconoclasts remain have long since settled into a safe and steady groove. Paul McCartney still trades in nice-guy pop and Mick Jagger still struts across stages despite being nearly 70, but Dylan, ever loath to define himself, remains something of a conundrum. Musically, he may not be innovating, elaborating on the blues- and folk-derived rock he’s been working with for decades, but albums like this year’s much-praised Tempest prove that he’s not simply phoning it in, and while he’s far from the sharp-tongued voice-of-a-generation he once was, he’s not exactly predictable either. So who is the former Mr. Robert Zimmerman now: still a poet and uncompromising troublemaker, a past-his-prime satellite radio shill or something else entirely?

Thursday’s concert didn’t shed much light on the subject, with Dylan speaking nary a word to the audience except to (incomprehensibly) introduce the band. After a lengthy set from opener and former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, whose current Celtic folk sound bears little resemblance to ’80s hits like “Money for Nothing” and “Sultans of Swing,” Dylan took the dimly lit stage and assumed his position behind the keys, where he’d spend most of his hour-and-a-half performance, never once picking up a guitar. He emerged occasionally, much to the crowd’s delight, in order to embellish a tune with a harmonica solo while tapping out the rhythm in his pointy boots, but the most enduring image of the night was his flat-brimmed hat bobbing along behind the baby grand. The song selection, somewhat predictably, skewed toward newer material, but greatest-hits fodder like “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” (the latter of which was the entirety of a brief encore) were also represented, although in true Dylan-esque (Dylan-ian?) fashion, they sounded almost nothing like the originals, updated enough as to sound nearly unfamiliar, but never betraying the spirit of a particular song.

The show was consistently absorbing, but consistency was also its greatest drawback. If you were paying attention—and aside from the woman sleeping in the seat next to me, everyone was paying very close attention indeed—you could tell the difference between a blues-rock number and a country-rock one, but overall it was so stylistically similar that a few curveballs would have been appreciated. Famously never much of a proper singer, his voice has degenerated from marble-mouthed mumble to gravelly growl, but while it took him a minute to warm up, he still used his voice to wonderful effect, providing a welcome rough edge to the spot-on sound provided by his well-honed backing band. To be honest, whatever he trotted out Thursday would have been eagerly lapped up by the adoring, gray-haired audience—it’s hard to imagine what, apart from announcing he voted for Mitt Romney, would incite them to cry “Judas” like when he went electric—but he clearly wasn’t coasting on his good name. Dylan may no longer be as influential as he was in the ’60s, but he’s still equally as hard to pin down, just like a true artist should be.