Wearing a white jacket and sporting the same mop of curly hair from his early days, Dylan graced the ACC stage like a ghost of himself last Wednesday night – only this time he was pushing 80 and gripping instrument stands as he shuffled around the stage.
This tour is promoting Triplicate, Dylan’s third album in a series of classic American covers from Frank Sinatra and the gang. Not surprisingly, the set list was a jazzy blend of originals and renditions, backed by none other than “His Band” – a crew that successfully turned the arena into a midnight jazz club.
Among several surprises, Dylan’s live vocals were the biggest for me. They still had the same undeniable Dylan quality, minus the yodel-heavy twang from his younger years, but were now soaked with decades of wear and tear. His Triplicate re-creations sounded as if Sinatra had smoked ten packs of cigarettes on show day (which could very well have actually happened). Dylan’s pipes were gruff and grainy. Most songs became like spoken word as he resorted to speaking over singing. It occurred to me halfway through the set that Dylan may have always intended for his music to be delivered that way.
“His Band” was a talented bunch, all clad in suit jackets and newsboy caps. Complete with a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and steel player, they were equipped to jump from crooner jazz to rockabilly and blues. Each song had an old-timey vibe, characterized by brush-heavy off beats and stand-up bass improvisation. Although most of Dylan’s night was spent at the grand piano, he stood in the centre of his band for some numbers, clinging to the mic stand for dear life and holding steady in an Elvis-worthy pose.
Dylan’s many renditions of classics like Sinatra’s “Once Upon A Time” and Etta James’ “Stormy Weather” were musically representative but melodically opposite. The lyrics became the only true tip-off to what each song might be. Still, his strained, spoken vocals added something eery and engaging to the old ballads – something perhaps only Dylan could offer up.
His originals were equally as difficult to pinpoint as his covers. It wasn’t until the first verse was coming to a close that favourites like “Tangled Up In Blue” were distinguished and cheered on by the less than half- full arena of humbled fans. The floor seats gave him a standing O after every tune. A man behind me shouted, “Tickle those keys, Mr. Zimmerman!” The delightful man beside me was meekly requesting “Mr. Tambourine Man” after each number, sincerely hoping his favourite song might make its way to the stage. His requests weren’t received, but the mere sight of Dylan was likely enough to satisfy.
His performance of “Autumn Leaves” was a highlight for me. The vocals were more powerful (and flexible) than they had been all evening, encompassing a pain – whether physical or emotional – that really caught wind, especially since the show had since only showcased a 3-note range from the folk legend.
There were no photos or videos allowed (security was lightning quick to remind you). There was no banter in between songs, no audience interaction, no stories or hello’s or goodbye’s – at least not in the traditional sense. While at first I was surprised, I soon understood that there didn’t need to be. For an artist as iconic as him – an artist who voiced a generation and won a Nobel Prize – perhaps there just isn’t that much left to say (cue the series of cover albums).
In all, the show was a sleepy one. Dylan moved and sounded his age. He seemed to have given up on melody – even “Blowin’ In The Wind,” one of the most simple and distinct melodies of all time, was almost unrecognizable as his encore piece. But for a girl with a bucket list and a big black line crossing out one of its items, I left my first Dylan show with a smile on my face.