The rather upbeat 82-year-old legend brought his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour Saturday to DeVos Performance Hall, a show at once shadowy, unpredictable and characteristic of an evening with Dylan.
Bob Dylan does not care what your expectations are of him.
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You would think that after seeing him at least 15 times in concert that I’d have a pretty good idea of what to expect, however, I try not to go into Dylan shows with expectations. For a lot of people, Bob Dylan is a bucket-list show. A lot of people just want to see the greatest songwriter of all time while he’s still around. He is 82, after all.
But one thing I’ve learned for sure is that if you expect Dylan to come out with an acoustic guitar and play a greatest hits set, he most certainly will not.
A quick look at the set lists for this tour was enough to know that it was going to be mostly songs from the latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways. I put the album on earlier in the afternoon in anticipation, and felt ready for the show. I arrived early enough to make sure I could get a photo of myself in front of the marquee which unfortunately was broken. No marquee photo.
One of the more unique aspects of the show was the fact that you were not allowed to use your cell phone once inside the venue. All concertgoers had to lock their phones in Yondr bags, a new device for preventing cell phone use. You basically put your phone in the bag and they lock it and then they unlock it for you on the way out. Great. No photos and no videos.
I snapped a quick pic of myself and my guest Dan Hildebrandt, the bass player in my band, Nicholas James and the Bandwagon and then we locked our phones up and went inside. (EDITOR’S NOTE: As is Dylan’s long-held policy, his tour does not provide media credentials or allow professional photography at concerts.)
The stage set-up was simple with minimal lighting and no fancy technology. Noticeably, the back curtain to the stage was not drawn, exposing the industrial wall and various roadie cases, as well as the lighting rigging behind the band. It almost seemed like an oversight, as though they forgot to close the curtain, but you could see that the cases were clearly lit so it must have been the presentation the band was trying to give.
Four spotlights that look like they came from a 1930s movie set, as well as a couple of floor lamps were the only lights on stage. It was a strange set-up, but I’ve come to expect strange from Bob Dylan.
The lights went down at 8 p.m. sharp and the band took the stage all dressed in black suits. They started playing the intro to “Watching the River Flow” and moments later, Dylan appeared to a thunderous applause from the audience.
SHARPLY DRESSED, IN GOOD SPIRITS AND GRAVELLY AS EVER
Clad head to toe in a black-sequined suit with the exception of his white-tipped shoes and white hat, Dylan at 82 was as sharply dressed as ever and his performance was full of style and swagger.
Alternating between standing while singing and sitting while jamming, Dylan was rocking center stage all night behind a black baby grand piano. I found his piano playing to be exploratory and riveting, with Dylan himself taking most of the leads and solo sections, deferring to his band only a few times.
His voice — smokey, garbled and grumbled — was unfortunately difficult to understand at times. I’ve come to expect this. As a hard-core Dylan fan, I know most of the lyrics anyway, but I can see how it would be distracting for someone who’s not familiar with the songs.
He focused mostly on songs from “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his latest album, released in June 2020. There were a few gems from the gospel era, including a delightful version of “Gotta Serve Somebody” and also a few classics from The Band era, including “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine).”
Another highlight was an unexpected cover of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” which Dylan played for only the third time in his career. I particularly enjoyed the new arrangements of To Be Alone With You” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” but overall the show stayed away from the hits.
Dylan seemed to be in particularly good spirits, considering he thanked the audience no less than four times. The audience was engaged and attentive for most of the show and it was delightful to watch an entire concert without a bunch of cellphones in the air.
I’ve seen Dylan shows where he doesn’t say a single word to the audience, so to hear him introduce the band was a treat, too: Jerry Pentecost on drums, Bob Britt on electric guitar, Doug Lancio on acoustic and electric guitars and Donnie Herron on violin, electric mandolin, pedal steel and lap steel, and Tony Garnier, the longest-servingg member of Dylan’s band on electric and upright bass.
The show’s climax came during the finale, “Every Grain of Sand,” when at long last, Dylan picked up a harmonica from top of the grand piano, and stood with pride while he belted out the only harmonica solo of the night.
Afterward, he took a few steps towards the front of the stage and stood there while the near-capacity crowd lauded him with praise, cheers and applause. He looked unsteady after nearly 2 hours on stage, and after a few moments, he nodded and bowed his head.
His shadowy figure took a few steps backward into the darkness, the lights went dim and he was gone.
Did the audience expect an encore? Perhaps, but Bob Dylan does not care about what you might expect of him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicholas James Thomasma is a veteran Grand Rapids singer-songwriter and leader of the band Nicholas James & The Bandwagon. He also has long hosted an annual Bob Dylan tribute show.
SET LIST: Bob Dylan at DeVos Performance Hall
Watching the River Flow
Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)
I Contain Multitudes
When I Paint My Masterpiece
My Own Version of You
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
Crossing the Rubicon
To Be Alone with You
Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
Gotta Serve Somebody
I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You
Mother of Muses
Goodbye Jimmy Reed
Every Grain of Sand
MORE ABOUT BOB DYLAN:
VIDEO: Nicholas James & The Bandwagon covers Bob Dylan’s “Silvio”
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