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Wednesday, 24 April 2013 17:00

Concert review and set list: Bob Dylan (with Dawes) keeps changing and challenging, at the Peabody Opera House, Tuesday, April 23

Concert review and set list: Bob Dylan (with Dawes) keeps changing and challenging, at the Peabody Opera House, Tuesday, April 23
Written by Robin Wheeler

Middle ground doesn't exist when it comes to Bob Dylan shows. The response is either, "I can't believe I walked six blocks in the rain for this," or "I have printed set lists from every show he's played in the past five years! Do you want to see them?" I overheard both of those snippets within seconds of standing among the rain-besotted crowd in the Peabody's lobby.

Openers Dawes fit well with Dylan's perceived aesthetic: folk-influenced, electrified rock and poetic lyrics that earned a standing ovation. They're the evolution of what Dylan started nearly 50 years ago.

Dylan's evolved, too. Yes, his voice is gruff and aged, but it's the voice that's required to tell the stories from the modern-era albums that dominated the night. The harsh, spat-out words are one small part in a whole story Dylan creates with each song. Hard as it was to tear attention away from a legend, it was necessary to take in every factor -- that voice, the band, melody, lyrics, harmonica, lights, darkness and history -- to understand the complex narrative he orchestrated.

It was appropriate for Dylan to play an opera house, as he didn't speak a single word in his 90-minute set. Speaking wasn't necessary to tell his tales.

Dylan and his tight, proficient band settled into a darkened stage for the first three songs. "Things Have Changed," "Love Sick" and "High Water (For Charley Patton)" felt like ghost stories in campfire-lit woods, before morphing into "Soon After Midnight" with its heavy homage to "Blue Moon" and the early rock of Dylan's youth that inspired him even more than the folk music tradition. By "Early Roman Kings" the band was dominated by a bedrock of syncopated drum beats, upright bass and Dylan fluttering out piano riffs. He spent the bulk of the night on the keys, only stepping out for vocals and harmonica, never touching a guitar.

He was almost halfway through the set list before he ventured into his earlier catalog with "Tangled up in Blue" and "Visions of Johanna" sandwiching "Pay in Blood" from his most recent album, "Tempest." The trio of songs seamlessly covered the spectrum of American music -- "Blue" performed with a country richness rooted in pedal-steel guitar and punctuated with jangly acoustic guitar. "Pay" gently morphed into electric-blues guitar with a subtle anchor in pedal steel. "Johanna" evolved into a delicate jazz improv full of long instrumental stretches. 

"Spirit on the Water" went the way of Tin Pan Alley pop, before the fast shift back to the ominous in "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'." On a darkened stage with spotlight blasting the audience, a quartet of distorted guitars disoriented senses.

"Blind Willie McTell" went from its recorded acoustic folk to bluegrass-tinged banjo and upright bass to tell the history of the blues. "What Good Am I?" was soft and whispered at the piano, followed by the '50s-influenced simplicity of "Summer Days."

"Scarlet Days" proved that Dylan's voice isn't ravaged; he just knows when articulation's important to the narrative he's creating. He's clear, emotive and a bit lilting when it's necessary. Nor has his power wavered. He closed the set with a guitar-blazed "All Along the Watchtower," embracing how Hendrix evolved the original with a pure power, all-band onslaught.

Still speechless, the musicians returned for a one-song encore: "Ballad of a Thin Man," bringing the show back to the darkness where it began. Lyrics nearly whispered, cautionary and slinky.

Things have changed. If they hadn't, Dylan would be doing nostalgia shows instead of continuing to find new ways to weave stories with every thread of the American modern music canon that continues to challenge his audience.

Set list:

Things Have Changed
Love Sick
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Soon after Midnight
Early Roman Kings
Tangled up in Blue
Pay in Blood
Visions of Johanna
Spirit on the Water
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Blind Willie McTell
What Good Am I?
Summer Days
Scarlet Town
All Along the Watchtower

Ballad of a Thin Man

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