The 68-year-old Boy from the North Country born Robert Allen Zimmerman has been trying to break his own myth since the mid-60s, when he alienated fans of his early folk albums by plugging in and rocking out. Since then, his muse has come and gone, but his contrarian streak – most recently indulged on the month-old Christmas in the Heart, whereupon the Jewish-born troubadour snarls his way through yuletide standards with psychotic zeal – has been a constant.
For the last 20 years, so has the road. Dylan tours endlessly, turning up at a half-full arena or a minor league ballpark near you again and again, as if to prove he’s no sage, just an itinerant song-and-dance-man. Though late-period albums like Time Out of Mind and Love & Theft have evinced a creative renewal, he’s often been erratic, even indifferent on stage. Still, there’s something noble in his doggedness, fighting those Workingman’s Blues. Paying the empty seats as little mind as the occupied ones. Singing on though thousands of shows have curdled his voice into a viscous, gutshot croak. On a good night, he can still remind you why people worshipped him in the first place.
Last night was a good night.
At the Patriot Center, Dylan seemed interested, even invigorated, as his crackerjack five-piece band trundled through a set that emphasized the brilliant extremities of his ocean-deep discography. He kept mum save to utter a single “thank you” and to introduce the players at an auctioneer’s tempo. But his singing was clear and direct — you know, considering — and his manner determined.
Though his main instrument is the keyboard these days, he strapped on a guitar to hack his way through a bloody “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “The Man in the Long Black Coat” early in the set, always a good sign. He stayed in front of his lithe, limber combo to blow harp on a buoyant “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” swaying and preening like — well, like a frontman, by golly! A queasy smile radiating from beneath the wide brim of his hat, and sporting a day-glo shirt to match the trim of his undertaker’s suit, he looked like the 1989 Jack Nicholson incarnation of The Joker. But just seeing him appear to take pleasure in his songs and his band was enthralling.
Maybe it was the freshness of the material that kept him so attentive: He played more songs from the present decade than from the 60s. (Eight to seven, Dylanologists. And the pair of remainders were from his two Daniel Lanois-produced albums, 1989's Oh, Mercy and 1997's Time Out of Mind, so that's a win.) Though he now favors arrangements that place the roll above the rock, “Highway 61 Revisited” felt doubly urgent and volatile sandwiched between “Workingman’s Blues (No. 2)” and the appropo “Ain’t Talkin,’” both from 2006’s terriffic but more mannered Modern Times. “Ballad of a Thin Man” swirled with norish menace.
And then it was over. By the encore, Dylan had burned whatever elixir had made the main set so electric. “Like a Rolling Stone” was all flaccid sentimentality. He punctuated “All Along the Watchtower” with those oft-parodied, arbitrary hiccups of inflection, punching the end of each line like a cheerleader, or a Beastie Boy: “Businessmen, they drink my WINE! Plowmen dig my EARTH!”
So that’s 90 inspired minutes out of 105 on stage. A victory by decision is still a victory, and the tour goes on.