in performance: bob dylan and his band

Bob Dylan.

Go away from my window; leave at your own chosen speed.”

That famous lyric, the lead off to “It Ain’t Me Babe,” comes from a staple of Bob Dylan’s catalog and performance repertoire. The song popped up No. 2 in the batting order of the master songsmith’s otherworldly sold out performance at the EKU Center for the Arts on Sunday evening, serving as – depending on your perspective – a greeting or a warning of what was to come. That’s because Dylan, 77, has long taken his songs at his own emotive, lyrical and rhythmic speed. Such asymmetry explains why some tunes sounded like crooners, other like pop carousels and more than a few like vehicles for, unfathomably, surf inspiration.

Seated at a piano for nearly the entire 1 ¾ hour concert (he quit playing guitar onstage years ago) with a functional four member band that was mostly backlit to make their music even more atmospheric, Dylan presented a set list rich with classics as well as comparatively newer works (meaning songs cut in this century). As we have come to expect from a Dylan show, every song sported drastically altered arrangements that often shifted the music’s entire rhythmic structure. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” as a crooner? “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an encore lullaby? “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as a dizzying meditation? Those were the altered portraits Dylan put on display with varying shades of his death rattle vocals as a tour guide along with piano work that purposely blotched the musical canvases like spilt ink.

The newer works obviously intrigued Dylan more than the hits. As such, several presented some startling surprises, including an incantatory “Scarlet Town,” the first of four tunes pulled from 2012’s “Tempest” and the only complete song Dylan sang without using the piano as protective armor. Equally arresting was “Cry A While” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” which was transformed into an electric hullabaloo of sorts thanks to guitarist Charlie Sexton’s Dick Dale-like guitar riffs (seriously, this arrangement had “Rumble” written all over it).

Also, if you were especially attentive and could make out actual words from Dylan’s corrosive singing, you could catch him toying with his own lyrics. A change I detected popped up in the set-closing “Gotta Serve Somebody” (“Maybe you’re hallucinating, you think you’ve seen a ghost”).

Curiously, it was the evening’s lone cover tune, which closed the evening, that served as the most faithful entry in the program to the song’s original incarnation. On a slow, somber version of James Brown’s immortal “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” Dylan focused his singing in a manner that approximated the clarity of his recent standards albums. Fiddler and BR549 alum Donnie Herron even provided a startling one-man take execution of the original’s potently elegant string arrangement.

How does such a song fit into one of the most socially timeless catalogues in popular music? Who’s to say? Then again, Dylan debuted the cover on Nov. 7 – the day after the election. In Georgia. For a program so thoroughly rooted in the Dylan mystique, this nightcap was a startling return to earth.



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