4 1/2 stars
April 25th, 2005
Bob Dylan is calling his latest tour the Bob Dylan Show, and indeed, it is Bob Dylan’s show— we’re just living in it. This first of a five-night stand at New York’s Beacon Theatre was a typically strange and thrilling journey through Dylan’s songbook, with a show-offy set list including many of his longest and most complex songs: “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Desolation Row,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” “Visions of Johanna.”
Dylan followed Merle Haggard, who, backed by his eight-piece band the Strangers, delivered forty-five minutes of flawless Bakersfield honky-tonk. It was the first time New York audiences got to see Dylan perform with his new band. His latest crop of players has a precise and relaxed style, which Dylan, with his lone-gunman keyboards, always seemed to be trying to undermine. Which means the music never became complacent, never seemed too finely tooled. The lounge music “Moonlight,” from Love and Theft, became something trippy and challenging; the rave-up “Summer Days” turned into a surreal whorehouse stomp.
Dylan positioned himself far to the left on the stage, playing keyboards as if he were a sideman in his own band. Three times during the evening he drifted to center stage — not to sing, but to unleash tender, plangent harmonica solos, as if he were selectively dropping the mask, choosing for a moment not to confound. Which, of course, only deepened the mystery. Most performers are concerned with putting their talent on display night after night; Dylan takes a different, riskier and, God knows, potentially annoying tack: putting his mystery out front. He defies us to figure out what he’s about, playing his heart but never revealing his mind.
This is a story from the May 9th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.