Whenever Bob Dylan returns to perform in his home state, there are always questions blowin’ in the wind.
On Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, fans wanted to know if he would acknowledge Minnesota in some way? Would he duet with his opening act and ex-flame Mavis Staples? Would he do a tribute to the just departed Fats Domino? Or his recently deceased pal Tom Petty?
The answers to 9,000 friends, were “no” to all of the above.
Dylan, who said nothing to the audience all night, stuck to the set list that has become familiar of late to Dylanophiles — a handful of Dylan classics, several standards from his three recent forays into the Great American Songbook and an assortment of post-1997 Dylan originals.
But the set list wasn’t what mattered most. Because Dylan hasn’t been so consistent, committed and convincing vocally in concert in Minnesota in years. Whether he snarled, boogied or crooned — yes, crooned — he did it with such authority and fervor. No need to complain about mumbling words, parched throat or late-in-life indifference.
At 76, Dylan sang with both the fierce passion of his heady youth as well as the hard-earned wisdom of someone who has been around a time or three.
After a spirited opening set by the gregarious Staples, Dylan and his five-man band walked onstage without introduction. There was no Zorro hat this time for the bard from Hibbing. Just a cauliflower-like head of brown curls and a snazzy silver lame dinner jacket, black pants and white boots.
Dylan and his musicians, dressed in white lame dinner jackets, came out smoking on “Things Have Changed,” the 2000 tune that won Dylan an Oscar.
If you wanted to read the tea leaves, you could interpret the first few songs as Dylan sending a message of don’t expect him to be Bob Dylan, whatever that might mean to you.
Things have changed, indeed, even though that dark and mysterious song is based on the characters in the movie “Wonder Boys” for which it was written. Then Dylan turned back the page to 1964’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” (the song made famous by the Turtles) with the bristling kiss-off “it ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.”
He then brought it all back home with “Highway 61 Revisited,” one of his signature rockers that was recast as a piano boogie with his voice full of vitriol and some of his keyboard work perhaps suggesting a tip of the hat to piano superstar Domino (though Dylan was more of a Little Richard fan).
Dylan stepped away from the piano to croon Cy Coleman’s standard “Why Try to Change Me Now,” as he almost slow-danced with the microphone stand and served notice that I am who I am so just accept it.
It was easy to accept him as a crooner as he delivered the standards straightforward, with the showbiz panache and wizened phrasing of a Frank Sinatra, sans the pretty voice.
Dylan also successfully re-imagined his own tunes, turning 2001’s “Summer Days” into a playful, thigh-slapping hoedown, seasoning 2001’s “Honest with Me” with a bit of the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” and transforming 1975’s “Tangled Up in Blue” into a majestic guitar march. That tune has never sounded so happy.
Even though he didn’t play harmonica or guitar during the 100-minute performance, Dylan hasn’t sounded so complete, versatile and musical in a Twin Cities concert in years.