Bob Dylan's recent concerts have been scattershot affairs. Many nights are sublime, but on others he appears to be phoning it in, growling his way through old hits and leaving most everyone but hardcore fans struggling to figure out even the title of the song.
It's anyone's guess what changed over the past few months, but at the final performance of his five-night stand at New York's Beacon Theatre – his amazing 91st show of the year – Dylan sounded magnificent. He was expressive, clear, articulate, intensely focused and visibly pleased. Without a doubt, it was the most enjoyable Dylan concert in recent memory.
Part of the change might be related to his decision to dump most of what he wrote before Time Out of Mind, breaking out just two songs from the 1960s and two others released between 1970 and 1997. That's a bold move for an artist with a back catalog as beloved as Dylan's – one few of his peers would even dream of pulling. As usual, he opened with "Things Have Changed," his Oscar-winning song from the Wonder Boys soundtrack. It was a very appropriate choice because the 1999 tune marked the exact moment when he stopped working with outside producers, opting simply to do the job himself. The vast majority of the rest of the night was a trip through the four (non-Christmas) albums he created in the following years.
Dylan recorded these albums with his touring band, and although the crew has rotated some, its core has been bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile, rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball, lead guitarist Charlie Sexton and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron for quite a long time. They've turned into an amazingly tight unit, and the fact that they've been doing this exact 19-song set list for months and months meant that they easily nailed every nuance. Sexton was particularly impressive: He may not shred like he did during his original late-1990s and early-2000s run with Dylan, but in many ways the delicate and refined approach on display last night was even more impressive.
The pre-intermission set featured a slow and reworked "Workingman's Blues #2," a haunting "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" and a rollicking "Duquesne Whistle." Dylan alternated between playing his piano on the side of the stage and standing dead center without an instrument. The set wrapped up with an amazing double shot of "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Love Sick." He's been rewriting the lyrics to the former song for 40 years, meaning you'll never quite know how the tale of star-crossed lovers will proceed until he actually starts singing.
After a brief intermission, Dylan returned with "High Water (for Charley Patton)" and "Simple Twist of Fate," the Blood on the Tracks gem inspired by his breakup with early New York girlfriend Suze Rotolo. Dylan has been forced to relive their sad separation by the waterfront docks for decades, and hearing him sing it just a quick subway ride from their old neighborhood was particularly moving. It's also the kind of moment that tends to get swallowed up and lost when Dylan plays at basketball arenas or large outdoor amphitheaters – seeing this show in a theater is a different experience entirely.
The only real misstep came near the end of the second set, when he moved through "Early Roman Kings," "Forgetful Heart" and "Spirit on the Water." These are all bluesy songs, and they sort of blur together when played in sequence. Dylan threw a bone to the casual fans by kicking off the encore with "Blowin' in the Wind," then went right back to baffling everyone but the trainspotters when he wrapped the show with "Stay With Me." It's a tune that Frank Sinatra popularized in 1964 and will likely appear on Dylan's upcoming covers record Shadows in the Night. "I grow cold, I grow weary and I know I have sinned," he sang, sounding as if he truly meant every word. "And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind."
He walked offstage without saying a thing, bringing an end to the 26th consecutive year of the Never Ending Tour. No dates are on the books for 2015, but it's hard to imagine this train stopping any time soon. When it resumes, it's possible he'll continue doing this same exact set list (his most unchanging show since the early-1980s gospel tours), but he might also revamp the whole thing. The only consistent thing in Dylan's career is that nobody ever knows where he's headed next.