By Mark Guarino
At age 60, Bob Dylan’s endurance as a vital artist has not slacked. The audience at his show Saturday night at the United Center was filled with more twentysomethings than his own peers. And his setlist — early century Americana to songs off his latest album — remained frightfully relevant and, you suspected, will so long after he’s gone. As long as there are bumbling con men turning tricks in boardrooms and in bedrooms, Dylan’s three decade-old catalog will never weaken.
There’s a unnerving comfort in knowing that Dylan is in the midst of crawling across the America on tour while U.S. bombs slaughter Afghanistan’s countryside. His landmark songs from the Vietnam era revived their sense of purpose and Dylan and his four-member band played them with no less emotional urgency.
Rotating between acoustic and electric sets, Dylan returned to songs that both sought spiritual solace and railed against institutional ignorance. The second song of the night was his monumental protest song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Over three decades old, it was enunciated so fully by Dylan, it sounded as if written last night. The band performed it mournfully until Dylan — dressed as a professional card shark in a black suit with silver tailoring — lifted his leg, outstretched one arm and blew through a flinty harmonica solo.
Early on in the set were two early century country songs that seemed especially hand-picked for today’s headlines. Dylan opened the show with the spiritual “Wait For The Light To Shine,” a hit for Hank Williams. Following later was “Searching For a Soldier’s Grave.” Featuring multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell’s melancholy mandolin and the band’s three-piece harmonies, the song was the show’s most tender moment.
But the most poignancy of the night came when Dylan played his mighty rock songs decrying hypocrisy and the unquenchable appetite for war. Reworking “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” into an ominous shuffle raised his voice for the single line, “even the President of the United States has to stand naked.” Similarly, “Masters of War” sounded especially menacing while “You Gotta Serve Somebody” was ravaged and raw.
“High Water,” the best of his new songs, turned a Delta river flood into a metaphor for chaotic times. After zipping through some jump blues, Dylan and band brought the stadium to silence. “Sugar Baby,” a new song they played with barely any instrumentation, was quietly paused as Dylan sang the line, “every moment of existence feels like some dirty trick/happiness can come suddenly and leave us quick.” Again, the songwriter was right on the money.