Bob Dylan’s Friday night performance at the Greek Theatre was a warm, glowing mix of American music stretching from blues to country. The generous set list featured Blood On The Tracks favorites and nearly half of Highway 61 Revisited. The bottom has fallen out on Dylan’s voice—he now croaks out songs with a fierce rasp, his thin, acidic singing voice of the 60’s long gone. But he performed with spirit to a Berkeley audience eager to receive him.
Dylan’s current style of dress evokes a riverboat gambler, and on Friday he wore a flat-brimmed hat and striped pants. He played piano on most songs, didn’t touch a guitar, and sounded most at home blowing on his harmonica, which he did often. On a few numbers, Dylan prowled around the stage, singing and clutching his microphone. He barely addressed the audience, and when he did, spoke with an accent he certainly didn’t pick up during his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota.
The highlights of Dylan’s set came when he departed from the ambling and impeccably played Americana that he and his band whip up with ease. These days, every Dylan song is played in the style of Dylan’s recent music (His September release, the turgid Tempest, was unrepresented in the set list). At the Greek Theatre, the folk of “Blowin’ In the Wind” and rock of “Like A Rolling Stone” came out sounding pretty much the same.
But, for a pair of songs towards the end of the night, Dylan pushed in different directions. “All Along The Watchtower” was fierce and vicious, owing much to Jimi Hendrix’s cover. “Ballad of a Thin Man” was the real revelation. Dylan’s 1965 song lays out the generation gap—make that a chasm—as clearly as rock ever did, in acerbic, accusatory language: “Something’s happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you/Mr. Jones?”
Dylan’s band—all consummate professionals, all dressed in black—cast “Thin Man” in a darker light, as the lighting shattered into splinters against the Greek’s backdrop. Dylan’s vocals, on this song and this song only, were sent through a processor, echoing back his words twice. “But you don’t know what it is” gained menace with each repetition, and Dylan seethed as he stood and sang. “Thin Man” was brutal, a concert performance to join Dylan’s classic versions of “Like A Rolling Stone” from the 1960s (heavy as lead) and “Isis” from the 1970s (galloping and unhinged).
Every time Dylan played a tune from the '60s and '70s, a charge went through the crowd, which was largely of Dylan’s generation. Concert-goers tried a few sing-alongs, but Dylan’s voice these days is so gnarled, his phrasings so odd, that they didn’t really take. The Dylan of today can’t sing the chorus of “Like A Rolling Stone” like he did in 1965—he can’t, and doesn’t want to.
Mark Knopfler opened the concert with an hour-long set of Scottish-tinged rock and Americana. Fans of songs about the open ocean and the open road did not go home disappointed. Knopfler was warmly received by the sold-out Greek, and left on a high note with the Dire Straits hit “So Far Away.”
But it was Dylan’s night. He and his band transported fans back to a time before Dylan—or the myriad changes his music has wrought—was a known quantity. His words, for most of the evening, were notable for not being about weighty social topics. Indeed, Dylan’s barely sung about that stuff since he plugged in. “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” a traditional that Dylan adapted in 2006 and played Friday, might be a comment on Hurricane Katrina. But who knows?
Mostly, Dylan sang about love: “To Ramona,” “Cry A While,” “Make You Feel My Love”. The loveliest of these was “Tangled Up In Blue.” The inscrutable but quite beautiful verses are still there, as is Dylan’s meter-cramming delivery. Friday night’s arrangement was considerably fuller than the Blood On The Tracks take. And the lyrics “glowed like burning coal,” as Dylan puts it in the song. The song, about a long, tortured affair, was a fine metaphor for the audience’s relationship with the performer: decades-long, and often complicated, but based on love.