By Mark Guarino
Bob Dylan is a cultural icon, a stature the 61-year-old songwriter has methodically ripped to shreds ever since his comeback in the mid-‘90s. He is the rare performer who represents his generation and is also acknowledged for advancing wider social change. Yet unlike a majority of his peers — most who don’t even come close to sharing the scope of his credentials — Dylan stomps on historic baggage and grinds audience expectation into the dirt. With each show on his “Neverending Tour” crisscrossing America each year, he steps out onstage like it’s a new day with possibilities still within reach.
At the Allstate Arena Friday, Dylan once again lit a fire underneath songs in his catalog, some by now nearing 40 years old. In his hands, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a protest song written in 1965 but with its condemnation still fresh, each notorious line in the litany of lyrics was red hot with wickedness. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his 1963 folk anthem is now a gospel hymn, soothingly sung in three-part harmony with Dylan and his guitarists, Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell.
But this is nothing new to anyone who has caught Dylan during this prime time in his career. The jolt of newfound purpose is both the result of and the reason why “Time Out of Mind” and “Love and Theft,” his two most recent albums, have been so critically praised. On this recent go-round, however, he is pouncing on songbooks of his famous peers, taking well-worn classics off their dusty shelves to check their pulse.
Who’d have thought you’d ever hear the opening riffs of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” at a Dylan show? Dylan sang it weezily, his offbeat phrasing forcing you listen to the actual lyrics — “how come (beat) you dance (beat) so good (beat)?” With Sexton and Campbell’s help harmonizing, Neil Young’s plucky “Old Man” shined.
Although most of the crowd didn’t recognize the songs, Dylan quietly paid tribute to darkly satirical songwriter Warren Zevon, in the last stages of terminal lung cancer, with two of his ballads, “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Mutineer.”
Of the 20-song set, the more recent songs Dylan played were the most lethal — “Cold Irons Bound” lurked with the midnight menace of a John Lee Hooker blues tune. Sneering the apocalyptic lyrics of “Things Have Changed,” one of his best songs in the past few years, Dylan embodied the sly maneuverings of a snakecharmer.
One surprise is he played piano for most of the show, jamming his fists on the keys or just hitting one-note solos. It tilted the show on an angle, dressing the stage with weird tension. His band, including new drummer George Receli and bassist Tony Garnier, erupted on “Summertime,” what could have been the night’s weakest song. Just as it was about to end, the song’s standard jump blues rhythm was punted up many levels so that the music wasn’t about the icon who wrote it, but about the group huddled together rocking faster and furiously.