Dylan Proves Talent Trumps Age

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Like an aging blues man uninterested in retirement and existing only for the opportunity to play his songs, Bob Dylan at 70 is still challenging himself live. One of rock’s greatest chameleons, Dylan has morphed into an improvising interpreter of all the different sides of himself. If you came to see him live, (like the packed house did Friday night at the Orange County Fair), expecting the greatest hits, then you were in luck! He played a handful, but he was in no way interested in playing them the way you know them.

Beginning with the second number of the night “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” Dylan turned the 60’s penned thanks-for-nothing-I’ll-be-fine-without-you classic into something all together different. Dylan spit out the words, stopping and pausing on different accents throughout the song, re-inventing a newer, deeper version right there in the moment. The same can be said for the fourth song, “Tangled Up In Blue,” when Dylan came out from behind his comfortable perch of a small set of keys to punctuate his point. Walking lightly through the song, Dylan made sure to hit the right moments with enough inflection in his voice so that the audience could feel the classic’s weight.

After a sped-up version of one of his latest recordings, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” the mood of the set seemed to shift as Dylan embarked on three songs from his classic 2001 release Love and Theft. Starting with “Sugar Baby,” Dylan opened up his voice and gave a reading that put a spell on the night. His demeanor seemed to change while delivering the passionate lyrics as he stood out in front of his band alone, twisting his hands, throwing back his arms, and allowing the song to barrel through him. He remained alone at the mic for an extended run of “High Water” (for Charley Patten), taking the opportunity to wield a few harmonica solos that pushed the song’s offbeat rhythms all over the place before the band captured the groove and returned it back to Dylan for the next verse. It teetered on the edge of disaster but Dylan, the master of the high wire act, found his footing and carried the song to its uplifting conclusion.

After the Love and Theft trilogy, Dylan seemed focused on delivering a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that was full of fire and brimstone. His voice gnarled out each pass at the chorus making sure everyone attending felt it when he shouted out “It’s Hard!”

“Highway 61” followed and it seemed that Dylan, who had just spilled his guts out over the last few songs, might have lost his luster. The version was rushed and lacked the celebration the song usually evokes live. But just when you thought you could start the standing 8 count, Dylan moved back to the front of the stage and delivered the knock out. Preaching the 2009 released song “Forgetful Heart” with everything he had, the slow version gave Dylan’s words a chance to freeze for a moment and then disappear like the almost whisper he was using to deliver them.

The band revved it up one more time on the next song “Thunder on the Mountain” before Dylan, who seemed to do his best work alone at the front of the stage, pulling and tugging on the microphone, stepped forward for “The Ballad of a Thin Man.” The final song of the set featured Dylan barely visible, except for a few illuminating floor spotlights shining up on him, capturing his stare and determination. And by the sound of his delivery, if it were left inside of him, that song would have most definitely rotted him to the core. Poisonous lyrics slipped from him his tongue as the shadows he hid himself in danced all around him. It was a haunting take that put the stamp on the mystery that is Bob Dylan.

The encores–“Like A Rolling Stone,” “All Along The Watchtower,” and “Blowing in the Wind”–were like parting gifts. It’s great to experience those songs live, especially the uproarious response the crowd delivered after “Like A Rolling Stone.” The man of the evening disappeared after the small floor spotlight dimmed at the end of the set, fading into the back of the stage and through the curtain without even a gesture. Dylan left without saying a word. And he really didn’t need to; his performance said it all.

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