By Mark Guarino
Being strapped with an acoustic guitar and harmonica is an ubiquitous image for Bob Dylan over the last 40 years. Yet at the Aragon Friday, the 62-year-old icon spent the entire night huddled at a keyboard and occasionally swaggering his way to the front of the stage to try out a little dance.
Friskiness is what most Bobheads have come to expect of Dylan in the last couple of years as he’s worked to erase memories of his days in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when his touring life became a combination of the cash grab and rush job. The recent resurgence of his “Neverending Tour” has meant for fans a chance to catch Dylan breathe new life on vintage chestnuts, work out new covers and find new ways to present something old as something new.
The two-hour, 17-song Aragon show was the first of four sold-out nights of Dylan in Chicago. Continuing through Monday, Dylan is downsizing venues each night, having played the Riviera Saturday, the Vic tonight and the Park West Monday.
The band formed for this new chapter of his career has shifted as well. On this tour, Richie Hayward, long-time drummer for Little Feat, joins drummer George Recile. Having twin drummers proved more novelty than necessity, though. The pair heavily beefed up songs like “Highway 61 Revisited” but otherwise the busy intersections in their playing became slightly excessive. The new addition of New Orleans guitarist-fiddler Freddy Koella was a better fit. He and guitarist Larry Campbell worked to compliment each other, but it was their dual playing on Dylan’s rockabilly song “Summer Days” that sent it into overdrive, picking up the tempo at every turn.
Dylan continued to give his expansive catalog a renewed skin. Dressed in a white cowboy hat and black western suit, he arranged songs that he had written almost 40 years earlier to make them sound like they were written yesterday. The lavish chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone” became stark, with Dylan turning it into a call-and-response between him and his band. The only thing left from “Every Grain of Sand” were the lyrics — in its new arrangement it became a cowboy song.
The band continually switched gears, moving from rougher rock to quieter country, with songs that zigzagged from the past to present including occasional surprise choices like “Cat’s in the Well,” from his often-reviled 1990 album, “Under a Red Sky” (Columbia).
As for that keyboard, Dylan’s tinkering didn’t contribute much. When he did stray from the instrument, he wound up in front of the band, holding his microphone in hand to sing and hinting he wished in another life, he could have been Tom Jones.