All day the weather in Barrie had been nice, but about an hour before Bob Dylan took the stage, the skies opened up. It poured buckets, sending everybody inside in droves. It was strangely appropriate. I’ll get to that in a second.
For those who haven’t been keeping track, Bob Dylan’s had an eventful few years. He won a Nobel Prize earlier in 2017 and released the third LP in a series drawing on the Frank Sinatra songbook, Triplicate. Since the left-turn of Shadows in the Dark, the sense of this period has come through. Dylan’s voice is a gruff as ever, but when he croons, it cracks and bends, giving his music an emotion it’s lacked in years.
More to the point, his band’s approach has changed too. He’s mixed things up over the years, touring with everyone from The Band to Tom Petty, but these days his band has an old time vibe: steel guitar, a fiddle, driving rockabilly rhythms and dives into swing or jump blues.
In Barrie, Dylan opened his set with “Things Have Changed,” one of his newer staples, but featuring a different arrangement: here it was played as a slow, driving number, George Recile’s drumming giving it a propulsive, Bolero-like feel. Dylan, meanwhile, sat behind the piano, where he’d spend most of the evening.
The honky-tonk vibe continued for most the evening. On “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Dylan’s band turned a poppy folk number into a mid-tempo country tune, the sort of thing which could’ve come out of Sun studios in the 50s: behind the piano fills and Tony Garnier’s stand-up bass, there was a driving rhythm. Meanwhile, “Highway 61 Revisited,” had a quick, pointed delivery, the guitars uncurling between verses before the band snapped back into a groove. It was completely different than the irreverent vibe from the 60s original, but also compelling.
Of course, there was also the Sintara approach, too. When Dylan and his band went into crooner mode, Dylan – clad in a white jacket with a black shirt on underneath – would wander to centre stage and lean on the microphone, legs akimbo and often with one arm behind his back. Sort of an Elvis pose, but for the old jazzy songs, not the rockers. These songs included “Melancholy Mood,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” and ‘That Old Black Magic.” And, especially appropriate for this night, “Stormy Weather.”
They’re an interesting comparison to his older material: they let him stretch his voice out a bit – he sounded a little rough on this night, but the guy’s also pushing 80 years old – and the band weaves a hazy, slow sound behind him. Donnie Herron’s pedal steel gives things an after-hours, timeless sound. Meanwhile, the two guitars of Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton kept things in a jazzy frame of mind. Often, Garner would bow his bass, adding to this effect.
A highlight of the set was “Duquesne Whistle,” here played less as driving rocker and more as a boogie-woogie, Herron’s lap steel giving it a timeless kind of roots rock sound: the way it was played that night, bit could’ve been from a 78 disc recorded 75 years earlier.
Likewise, “Tangled Up In Blue” was also hard to recognize at first, but also a highlight, It was almost spiky, building up through each verse and letting the band’s music crash before resetting; Dylan himself got a nice piano solo near the song’s end. Dylan’s delivery was a bit clipped and hard to make out at times, but again: the guy’s almost 80. Give him a break.
After 18 songs, the stage lights went out and the band rushed backstage before the predictable encore set. Here, Dylan broke out two classic numbers: “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Both had very different arrangements than the originals, but “Blowin’” especially benefited, becoming a tight rocker, while “Ballad: built up into a full-band groove, with Dylan stretching out on the piano.
A side note: Dylan spent most of the night sitting at the piano, but when he moved around, he looked like someone his age, often seeming to lean on himself. And for someone who’s been known for so long as a folk singer, he never once touched a guitar; all the classic rockers are getting older, but Dylan’s older than most. He might not be what you’re expecting – the people next to me left after a few songs – but if you get the chance, he’s still a compelling act.