Things Have Changed: Bob Dylan And Mavis Staples At IU Auditorium

A tale of two performances: our review of the Bloomington show.
A longtime Bob Dylan–fan friend of mine recently made this very good point: For all of Dylan’s reputation as an inscrutable recluse, a sly mystery, some mythic brand of unknowable stringy-haired wraith, he’s not that hard to catch.

I don’t have the exact math on this—God save anyone who does—but Dylan is on the road so much that everyone gave up and started calling it the “Never-Ending Tour.” He releases an album maybe every other year; the most recent is a set of three CDs. He’s up to 13 editions of his ample “Bootleg Series,” the latest of which comprises eight discs chronicling his still-not-unweird Christian-flavored “Gospel Tour.” (It accompanies the just-released documentary “Trouble No More,” which features gobs of new footage.) To recap: That’s eight archive CDs for a weird spell that produced two albums that people mostly did not like. And while he’s hardly a cover model or anything, he’s good for a major interview or two every year, which was at one time considered an appropriate amount to hear from famous singers.

Point is, if you’re looking, Dylan is about as hard to find as a bag of Doritos. Armed with this revisionist knowledge, I attended my first Dylan concert in 12 years on Sunday night at the IU Auditorium, and found him … pretty much an inscrutable recluse.

Split pretty evenly between the usual broken-apart versions of his songs and the Great American Songbook, the show found Dylan clinging hard to that unknowable incarnation, the impossible-to-grasp suit-jacketed vagabond with the scruffy hair and unreadable gaze. Not to sound like a grump, but it becomes a lot to deal with.

That said, as a Dylan show it was well closer to a chin-stroking Hmm than an outright What in the hell was that? (although he got to the latter, specifically in a five-minute spoken-word “Tangled Up in Blue”). But let’s start with the good news: Dylan’s last five albums of new material have been Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, both comprised of songs made famous by Sinatra, and Triplicate, an homage to the Great American Songbook so important that he saw fit to release it as his first-ever three-CD set.

Here’s the weird part: The songs crushed. Whatever theoretical objections you have to Dylan’s unruly weed-whacker of a voice doing “Autumn Leaves” and “September of My Years”—and I had a few thousand of them—are 100 percent warranted. Yet in defiance of the laws of harmony and/or logic, they maintained a dusky, unsettled gorgeousness. For the Sinatra material, Dylan abandoned his piano—his sole instrument of choice all night—and decamped to the back of the stage, wielding the microphone stand like a prizefighter, adjusting his white dinner jacket and digging into lyrics with legitimate human emotion. And look, I’m not here to try to get inside the brain of Bob Dylan, but he seemed several degrees more invested in the new/old material; maybe freed from the constraints of endlessly rewriting arrangements, and given a slightly lower per-song word count, he seemed relaxed and engaged. His craggy stalactite voice doesn’t sound like he’s dragging songs like “Why Try to Change Me Now” and “Once Upon a Time” across gravel; it amplifies their sadness and remove.

If there was anything approaching a theme to the night, it was that remoteness. Dylan and his masterful band—Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitar, Tony Garnier on bass, George Receli on drums, and the invaluable Donnie Herron on pedal steel—kicked off with a smoking but unsettled “Things Have Changed” (as in, “I used to care, but…”) and what the record company called “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” so if you’re counting, that’s two songs designed to create distance in the first ten minutes. He found haunting versions of damaged gems “Love Sick” and “Trying to Get to Heaven” from the downcast jewel Time Out of Mind.

He was funny, though—he told a couple of jokes, and a really interesting anecdote about the time he—ha ha, I’m just kidding, he didn’t say a single word all night, and at no point did anyone venture to the front half of the stage. What’s more, Dylan asked for—and got—a strictly enforced stuff-your-phones-away policy; airport security should be as militant as the students working the Auditorium on Sunday night. I can’t tell you how weird it is to glance around a crowd during a concert and see actual dark.

For my money, he batted over .500 on the reworked songs. “Desolation Row” roared nicely; “Summer Days” became a tremendous blues number in which I swear he cracked a smile. “Thunder on the Mountain” found the crack band firing away on all cylinders in the night’s fiercest jam. But “Highway 61 Revisited” only managed a serviceable chug, and the jaunty-blues take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” seemed mostly a way to get through it.

Dylan has zero qualms about all this inaccessible weirdness, but he seemed to go out of his way to amplify it with his otherwise peerless choice of traveling companion. It seems a travesty to call Mavis Staples the opening act on this tour, as her set was a 45-minute firework of hope, redemption, and all the positive human emotions (to say nothing of their early mutual inspiration/almost engagement). If Dylan is a carefully curated curiosity, the 78-year-old Staples was sent to Earth to counterbalance him: On a late-career streak of her own (her newest, the Jeff Tweedy–produced If All I Was Was Black, arrives November 17), she was warm and hilarious. She tore into “Wade in the Water,” raged through the ageless “For What It’s Worth,” joked about trying to copy Dylan’s dance moves and rattled the rooftops with “I’ll Take You There,” obviously.

All of which makes her follow-up act all the more slippery. Staples bursts with joy, at 78 singing as though her voice comes from some power not of this Earth; Dylan arrives seemingly regarding his bandmates as pieces of food he did not order. Dylan remains galvanizingly watchable, forever maybe almost sort of about to offer a whisper of a glint as to what this is all about, hinting at the unsettled simmer beneath the surface, at his best when he’s doing something new. But for my money, I’d have taken another 90 minutes of his opener.

Bob Dylan’s set list:
Things Have Changed
It Ain’t Me, Babe
Highway 61 Revisited
Why Try To Change Me Now
Summer Days
Melancholy Mood
Honest With Me
Tryin’ To Get To Heaven
Once Upon a Time
Pay In Blood
Tangled Up In Blue
September Of My Years
Early Roman Kings
Soon After Midnight
Desolation Row
Thunder On The Mountain
Autumn Leaves
Love Sick
Blowin’ In The Wind
Ballad Of A Thin Man

Mavis Staples’s set list:
Touch a Hand, Make a Friend
Take Us Back
Build a Bridge
For What It’s Worth
Ain’t No Doubt
Wade in the Water
Love and Trust
I’ll Take You There