It only took his first Number One album in three decades for Bob Dylan to start shaking up what fans call the Never Ending Tour. Fresh on the heels of the critical and commercial success of Modern Times, Dylan kicked off a nationwide string of arena gigs in support of the new disc with a lively show that seamlessly worked new songs into the framework of well-known chestnuts. Playing keyboards and favoring the apocalyptic swamp chords of Modern Times tunes like “When the Deal Goes Down,” Dylan seemed, well, if not a new man, at least one who was rested and shaved. When “Deal” came four songs into the set, it seemed to rouse the sixty-five-year-old Dylan from a long sleep, as he rocked his shoulders and almost danced.
For years Dylan has been chasing a sound that is pre-rock, transforming four decades of hits into music that might have been played at an Iron Range speak-easy in the Twenties. He came dressed for the part, wearing a black suit befitting a carnival barker, with his stellar five-piece band in matching brown. As they reworked “Watching the River Flow” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” they gave these familiar portraits fresh settings by crafting them as country-blues slow-burners. When Dylan followed these with the live debut of “Workingman’s Blues #2,” a new tune but already the centerpiece of the set, he looked as if he’d refound a favorite memento from his youth. He ended the song by donning a black cowboy hat and picking a bit of air guitar, exhibiting a playful side Dylan rarely displays onstage – and providing evidence that this was more than an average night.
The biggest applause of the evening, however, came from a line in one of Dylan’s old war horses – but delivered with a fresh sense of political wit. Playing to a Canadian audience in a province where B.C. bud is the local money crop – and smoke filled the arena – Dylan tore into “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with the snarling, nasty firepower of his youth. When he hit the line about the U.S. president having to “stand naked,” it inspired wild, cathartic cheers. If Bob was selling a ticket to an earlier era, and perhaps a better time, everyone in the crowd was buying.
This story is from the November 2, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.