Bob Dylan and His Band, Bancorp South Center, Tupelo, Mississippi- 2/18
Bob Dylan returned to Mississippi for the first time in nearly five years Monday night and did what he does best these days entertain. Dylan, playing for the fourth straight night in a different state and to an arena that was two-thirds empty had every reason to come out uninspired but instead chose to continue his energetic resurgence by satisfying the teenaged to the middle-aged.
I was truly looking forward to the show for two reasons. Even though I have seen Dylan half-a-dozen times over the last few years, it seemed like every time it was either part of a multiple billing (Phil & Friends, Paul Simon) or at an outdoor venue where Dylan’s always hard-to-discern vocals can vanish in the vastness and summer winds.
Just taking a look around at those in attendance on this night, you could get a feel for the impact that Dylan has had on such a diverse age group for so many years. I am in my late twenties and admittedly have seen only a glimpse of the many hats Dylan has worn as a live performer. In my party were six or seven twenty-somethings, all seasoned concert-goers, yet seated in our midst were couples who have been married longer than we have been alive. They have truly witnessed the metamorphosis of Dylan from coffee-shop crooner, to the legendary years with The Band providing backup, the jazzy Vegas-style shows complete with backup singers, to his current polished lineup with a definitive country-western feel. It seems like these days Dylan has come full-circle, gotten back to his roots as both his musical taste and his hat have a down-home cowboy style. Much of this can be attributed to the comfort that Dylan feels with his current lineup of band members. He leans on them to carry him through the occasional low point and anticipate his constantly changing phrasing. Dylan while certainly still a competent guitarist, is thriving in the tightness he enjoys with guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton and multi-talented bassist Tony Garnier. Decked out in his white cowboy hat and boots and black suit with a pink tie for a twist, the sixty-year old looked fresh and had his patented leg-twist dance groove and shimmy working on all the up-tempo tunes.
The setlist for the evening was pretty typical of the Southern U.S. tour to this point. It included six songs off the much-acclaimed “Love and Theft” album but in dispelling any rumors that Dylan has lost his sense of humor, one of the new tracks omitted was “Mississippi.” After a sampling of Elvis’ introduction music over the P.A. system (a nod to Presley in his birthplace and hometown), Dylan took the stage just a few minutes after schedule and opened with a bluegrass number “I Am The Man, Thomas” his not so subtle way of letting us all know that he would be in command this night. If we needed further proof of this, the set continued with completely rearranged, almost unrecognizable yet sparkling “Mr. Tambourine Man.” “High Water (for Charley Patton)" came across live as well as any of the newer songs. The pace picked up with some fine pedal steel work by Campbell on “Just Like A Woman” but kicked into high gear with the trio of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” the now almost-necessary “Masters Of War,” and “Tangled Up In Blue” which had all of us younger folks dancing in the aisles. You could feel every one of the millions of miles Dylan has amassed in spreading his gospel when he snarled “me, I’m still on the road heading for another joint” and gnarled the Tangled in every chorus line. The set closed with a pair of the new songs, “Summer Days” and “Sugar Baby” followed by the classics “The Wicked Messenger” and “Like A Rolling Stone.
The first encore started with an almost touching rendition of “Love Sick” and perhaps some of the clearest Bob vocals of the night. “Forever Young” followed with the harmonies of the band and the volume level at its peak. Or so we thought. Encore number two was an absolute smoking “All Along The Watchtower” that literally worked us into a frenzy. Best version I have ever heard, live or recorded of this song. I know everybody has covered this song including Widespread Panic’s adequate take I heard this summer. But Dylan and his band made it clear on this particular evening that he wrote it and with the aid of his able band rocked it.. That would have been enough, but “Blowin’ In The Wind” was a fitting encore to send us all home with smiles in our souls. It was a soulful acoustic sendoff worthy of the rounds of applause. If you haven’t seen Bob in a while check it out. Sure some of the words are hard to understand, but part of the allure and professionalism of Dylan is he trusts his audience and expects you to be on your toes. He still is.