He came. He saw. He wheezed.
Actually, Bob Dylan's notoriously phlegm-infected, Scotch Brite-abrasive, wounded-Wookiee voice sounded better Wednesday night at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul than it did his last time in town. The news of the day and the style of performance, however, were largely the same.
The 71-year-old songwriting icon last played the Twin Cities on election night 2008 at Northrop Auditorium. He finally returned Wednesday, seemingly eager to once again ring in the chimes of freedom for his fellow Minnesotans -- although, he did not actually sing "Chimes of Freedom," nor did he say anything other than the names of his band members. Still, chalk up the timing as yet another unexplained facet of his mysterious relationship with his home state.
Not minding that his singing sounds even less harmonious than the general electorate nowadays, Dylan's local constituents remain true believers: About 7,000 of them filed into Xcel Center, more than in many other recent cities.
Adding to the interest level this time, Dylan arrived with a new running mate, Mark Knopfler. After his own opening set -- masterfully played, but with too much flute and only two oldies -- the Dire Straits leader returned to play three songs with Bob and his never-faltering Never Ending Tour band. Knopfler added some moody guitar fills to the 2006 movie-soundtrack nugget "Things Have Changed" and then helped give "Tangled Up in Blue" a lively, Grateful Dead-like bounce.
As on all his tours since 2004, Dylan played piano, not guitar (not even once). He even brought a grand piano out with him this time, which he employed grandiosely in sharp reinventions of the night's best-known classics. "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" was lighter and more tender pouring out of the piano, while "Highway 61 Revisited" was barely recognizable but utterly entertaining as a rollicking, boogie-woogie jam.
His boldest vocal performance of the night -- downright elegant by modern Dylan standards -- also fed off the piano's warm tones during the more recent "Spirit on the Water." The newest song of the set was "Early Roman Kings," one of the only times on tour he has played a song off his new album "Tempest."
Bob's piano fixation lessened the spotlight time for his guitarists, but former Arc Angels co-leader Charlie Sexton (who was in the Never Ending band 1999-2002 and returned in 2009) got a chance to show off his Texan chops in the bluesed-up opener "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," while Stu Kimball tore it up in "Thunder on the Mountain." Maybe brightest of all was Donnie Herron's banjo work to transform "Blind Willie McTell" into a warped Tin Pan Alley nugget.
If he wasn't seated at the keys, Dylan stood with microphone and usually a harmonica in hand, sometimes even shuffling his feet to the swaggering beat. It was hard to tell from the shadowy lighting, but it looked as if smiles frequently crossed his face during these moments.
Hopefully, that means he had a good enough time that we won't have to wait four more years for the next homecoming.
See Dylan's full set list at startribune.com/music.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib