An animated, even playful, Bob Dylan added some unexpected political commentary to an excellent election eve show at the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum last night. "We tried to play good tonight since the President was here today. He's a tough act to follow," Dylan said during "Blowin' in the Wind," the encore to his 15-song set. "I think he's gonna still be the President," he said, predicting, to loud cheers, "It's gonna be a landslide!"
Like many fans, I regard Dylan as the greatest and most important Western writer since Shakespeare. He showcased songs from eight albums released over a 43-year span, including two tunes from a half-century ago. True to form, he did not play any songs from his brand-new album, Tempest.
In his first Madison performance since his unique doubleheader at the Overture Center in late October 2010, Dylan stayed relatively faithful to the original arrangements and lyrics. One change from his many previous Madison appearances -- he played no guitar at all, only grand and electric piano and harmonica. But with Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitars, and Donnie Herron on pedal steel, his fret work wasn't missed -- especially on the four songs that featured former Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler. (Knopfler's opening act, a Celtic roots set, with eight musicians playing more than a dozen instruments, was itself a rich musical delight.)
And unlike that 2010 show at Overture, and many others, Dylan's voice was not the often-mocked gruff croak that some have compared to the Cookie Monster. Dylan will never be mistaken for fellow septuagenarian David Crosby, but his voice was clear and strong throughout. On the wistful "When the Deal Goes Down," his voice was positively feathery. He powerfully stretched out the final syllable in "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" to great effect. The majestic "Chimes of Freedom" was far better than his rendition at Bill Clinton's 1993 Inauguration, and he completely nailed both the vocal and lyrics to the apocalyptic "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
Although Dylan himself is a fine showman -- gesturing, leaning into the music, making steady eye contact with the crowd, pumping his left leg while pounding the ivories -- the stagecraft was so minimal as to be almost nonexistent. Other than some decidedly spooky lighting on the chilling version of "Ballad of a Thin Man," featuring a phased echo on the vocal (the "Mr. Jones" song to non-Bobheads), it was pretty much just five guys in matching gray suits and one old guy in a black suit with white piping, and wide-brimmed gray hat, playing music.
Dylan even dispensed with the over-the-top, somewhat mocking introduction he's used for years; instead, the band just sauntered onto the stage already strumming, and Dylan took to the piano with no introduction at all.
He didn't need one.