Bob Dylan’s well-documented “Neverending Tour”
once again hit Detroit last week, this time for three nights at the
intimate State Theater. It was a welcome reprieve for fans used to
seeing him play huge arenas, and a change of pace for the
perpetually touring Dylan and his troupe.

Judging by his stage manner, Dylan was barely present at
Monday’s opening show. He didn’t look at the audience
once, except for when he introduced his bandmates, coughing up some
broken names and staggering around the stage. The rest of the night
he was a slave to the piano — not much more to look at than a
cowboy hat and a black suit.

But he was only being efficient. The energy he saved in
personality went into the music, which kept the audience
enraptured. Somewhere in the space between his keyboard and the
rest of the band, Dylan still made his best songs sound urgent.

Old numbers like “It’s All Over Now, Baby
Blue” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”
sounded graceful under Larry Campbell’s pedal steel.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” opened the sound
up with the harmonious dueling of electric and acoustic
guitars.

Songs off Love and Theft departed little from their album
versions. But whereas the songbook style of “Floater”
made Dylan seem old, the jump-jazz beat and upright bass swing of
“Summer Days” brought the past to the present.

During the encore, “Like a Rolling Stone” chugged
along with its former glory intact. It’s significant that
Dylan has ended most of his recent shows with “All Along the
Watchtower.” On Monday, the song was a dark, pounding
manifesto of malcontent as he yelled “I can’t get no
relief in this world.”

Dylan took the stage Tuesday night, once again glued to the
keyboard. Ironically, the songs that secured Dylan’s iconic
status in music history were, again, nowhere to be heard. The set
had a modern slant that mostly ignored his best days, instead
turning to more recent tracks for the bulk of the show. The few
throwbacks he performed proved timeless — “Boots of
Spanish Leather,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the
Memphis Blues Again” and “Highway 61 Revisited”
— but they highlighted the lack of older material.

Dylanites disappointed by the absence of acoustic anthems
couldn’t resist tapping their toes to his recent material.
“Cry A While,” a reggae-infused jam off Love and
Theft
, was beautifully performed, as was the heartfelt
“Make You Feel My Love.”

Following the setlist of newer material, Dylan’s encore of
popular numbers felt contrived. Classics “Like a Rolling
Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” were too
predictable. More successful was Dylan’s rousing cover of Bob
Seger’s “Get Out of Denver,” a classy nod to the
native Detroiter and newly inducted Rock and Roll Hall of
Famer.

Dylan’s third night in Detroit was a different affair
entirely. His band seemed anxious to change the setlist, and
although it was still skewed too heavily towards the last 25 years,
the selections were superb. “Every Grain of Sand” was
reworked into a beautiful guitar orchestra and “Under the Red
Sky” wrapped itself around majestic lyrical turns.

Older material also benefited from full arrangements.
“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” was a
propulsive rock’n’roll thrill and “The Wicked
Messenger” was barely recognizable under two electric
guitars. “Girl From the North Country” was the
night’s most impressive performance, still echoing with a
warm, lovely charm.

The night did have its problems. Dylan’s piano was turned
far too low in the mix and Koella’s leads seemed to be a bit
off. Some selections, like “Moonlight” and
“Honest With Me,” were a bit bland — as was the
encore. The band began with a forgettable version of
“Cat’s In the Well,” and even after a charged
version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the
Watchtower” seemed stale.

So the crowd was especially pleased to see Dylan walk out for a
second encore. Striding onstage with the band was a pedestrian Jack
White. White, seemingly ignorant of the crowd’s collective
dropped jaw, picked up a guitar and launched the band into a
version of The White Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit.”
Dylan sang the first verse and White took the song from there. It
was a symbolic moment and the crowd proudly cheered on their native
son.

Dylan’s three-night stand in Detroit produced mixed
results. His setlists were plagued by new material. Complaints of
his faltering voice were not uncommon and many fans longed to see
the old bandit pick up a guitar. For the most part, though, Dylan
was amazing. His band is a thrilling rhythm and blues machine. The
man himself is still a spectacle: cowboy hats, playful nods and
cryptic apathy. He payed homage, passed torches, and reworked
classics. Most importantly, however, he played. Dylan is a landmark
American musician, and his three nights in Detroit proved that he
is as relevant, revered and enthralling as ever.

 

— Daily Arts writers Steve Cotner and Nicole Frehsee
contributed to this article.

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