In concert, self-indulgence is frequently the enemy of the attendee. And Bob Dylan can be a very self-indulgent artist. Unexpected to the point of hilarity, his last two albums have featured wall-to-wall covers of Frank Sinatra, a musician diametrically opposed to what Dylan stood for at the outset of his career. And as Dylan’s shows—the first of his latest tour—at the lush Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville, Washington, over the weekend proved, he fully intends to pack a summer’s worth of sets with Old Blue Eyes’ dreamy tunes.
If this sounds awful, rest assured it’s not. Dressed in a gray cowboy suit, white brimmed hat, white shirt, white boots, and a bolo tie, the 75-year-old Dylan seemed playful and spry on a 93-degree day that compelled his opener, the ultra-inspiring Mavis Staples, to remark, “Who sent for this weather? We bring enough heat as is.” The Sinatra tracks—from “Melancholy Mood” and “I’m a Fool to Want You” to “I Could Have Told You” and “Autumn Leaves”—find Dylan enunciating words in a manner that he rarely affords his own compositions, and prove that he can carry a pretty tune if he really sets his mind to it. Of course, it’s rare that he sets his mind to it (growling being his preferred method of communication)—which is what makes watching him put his spin on these songs such a revelation. (Here’s last night’s set list, for what it’s worth.)
That being said, I’m sure half the audience at Sunday’s show left feeling anywhere from perplexed to downright disappointed—par for the course at a Dylan show. He drew generously from Tempest, which was nice, but so thoroughly rearranged “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” that they were rendered melodically unrecognizable. (Relieved of context, however, this retooling sounded fresh and inventive, with pedal steel shimmering throughout.) If you showed up expecting Dylan’s music to transport you to the Greenwich Village folk clubs of the ‘60s, you probably felt gypped. Yet to anticipate such a show out of Dylan would also be incredibly stupid, as he’s spent the last half-century cleverly—or fiendishly—toying with audience expectations.
But the wonderful thing about seeing an artist like Dylan—a living American treasure, although he’d blush at the notion—at his advanced age is that the gravity of the moment is innate, especially on the weekend of Muhammad Ali’s death. While he didn’t mention the boxing icon from the stage, Dylan released an eloquent statement on his passing which read, “If the measure of greatness is to gladden the heart of every human being on the face of the earth, then he truly was the greatest. In every way he was the bravest, the kindest and the most excellent of men.”
So be maddened by the music, people—Bob wouldn’t want it any other way. But realize you’re witnessing a true American original, someone who courageously obliterated the bramble to create a superhighway of enlightenment. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee—fat chance you’ll see another Bob D.