Bob Dylan’s pronouncements from the stage are usually few and far between and tend toward the non sequitur. That was more or less the case at Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall on July 6 when the fabled singer stepped to the mic midway through his hour-and-fifty-minute show to tell the crowd he’d spent the day at the Motown Museum.| “I asked the guard, ‘Where’s the Smokey Robinson stuff?’ and he said, ‘You know what happens when Clark Kent gets hungry? He turns into Supperman!”
If Dylan didn’t exactly distinguish himself as a comedian, he did prove that his musical renaissance which began around the time of his brush with death a couple years ago and carried on through his Grammy-winning album Time Out of Mind is still in progress. Taking a side trip from his current tour with fellow troubadour Paul Simon, Dylan treated 1,000 fans packed tightly into this tiny performance space to a rare, intimate evening of songs from throughout his long and storied career.
Kicking off with a country-blues version of the Rev. Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues,” Dylan led his four-piece band through a six-song acoustic set highlighted by a gorgeous reading of “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” featuring stellar interplay between Dylan and guitarist Larry Campbell. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” proceeded like the ocean coming in at high tide, each chorus cresting and crashing, then going out again for guitar solos and another verse.
The band also played “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and “Girl From the North Country.” Throughout the show, Dylan enunciated his lyrics and crooned on-key. Only once, during “Tangled,” did he slip into the braying stereotype that, for much of the past decade, made him seem more a self-parodying nostalgia act than an epoch-defining artist who is still as vital as his songs.
Strapping on his electric guitar, Dylan charged through a snarling, almost punkish version of “Silvio,” then switched gears for a brooding take on “Man in the Long Black Coat.” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was set as a weeping honky-tonker, while a quiet, yet intense reading of “Not Dark Yet” proved to be the set’s highlight, with Dylan solemnly intoning “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
Dylan closed the set with a recast version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” which featured recently tapped guitarist Charlie Sexton, whose blistering solo was a welcome change from the support role he’d been playing all night.
The encore spotlighted the stark, forlorn “Love Sick,” and also featured a rollicking “Highway 61,” and a hushed, surprisingly vulnerable reading of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” on which Dylan set his guitar aside and closed the song with an extended harmonica solo. The show wound up with a high-energy version of “Not Fade Away” that was more Buddy Holly than Grateful Dead, but did seem to acknowledge the Deadhead contingent that latched onto Dylan after Jerry Garcia’s passing. The noodle-dancers cheered the song lustily, but then, so did everyone else.
Overall, the show didn’t contain any elements that fulfilled the audience’s expectation of a transcendent night. What it did have to offer, though, was a rare intimacy — the chance to get up close and personal with a performer whose work helped to shape the world we live in. That, of course, turned out to be more than enough.