Mankato – Fall in Minnesota often brings football frustration, the first snowfall — and a favorite son, Bob Dylan, in concert.
On Thursday, Dylan made his 14th fall visit to his home state, dating back to November 1965 at the old Minneapolis Auditorium (and including Halloween 1978 in St. Paul and two election nights in the Twin Cities).
This time at the Mankato Civic Center, the bard didn’t croon “Autumn Leaves” or any of the standards that filled his last two recordings and recent concerts. There were no frustrations with his repertoire, voice or performance. He was focused, impassioned and arguably singing at his best in decades.
Dylan’s previous local performance, in October 2017 in St. Paul, may have been more consistent, but in front of 8,000 concertgoers in Mankato he showed what he learned from concentrating on the Great American Songbook for the past decade. He has become a thoughtful, nuanced interpreter — and that’s precisely what he did with his own songs Thursday.
Offering tunes from all six decades of his recording career, Dylan, 78, re-imagined them with wisdom, eloquence and masterful phrasing — the kind of notions associated with classic stylists like Tony Bennett and Linda Ronstadt, not a singer-songwriter who's revered for his poetic material yet often derided for his singing.
To be sure, his raspy but expressive voice is an acquired taste. The opening, Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” notwithstanding, his voice on Thursday was unquestionably forceful, easily understood (no mumbling) and terrifically musical.
He recast “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as a melancholy country fiddle tune; revisited “Girl From the North Country” with wistful grace; turned 1981's seldom-played “Lenny Bruce” into a gentle elegy, and mutated "Thunder on the Mountain" into a Texas dance-hall shuffle and then a Chuck Berry boogie.
Dylan used his Floyd Cramer-like piano to transform “Soon After Midnight” into a country stroll, ended “Can’t Wait” with a stylish blues vocal twist and transported “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” to the intersection of gospel, country and pop.
The once-electrifying "Highway 61 Revisited" has settled into a charging piano rocker for a decade now, while another mid-1960s classic, the fairly straightforward "It Ain't Me Babe," took on new depths of emotion with the singer adding space between his words.
Dylan may have been at his best when he summoned the kind of vitriol that made him an important voice in American culture back in the 1960s. He stood in the middle of the stage with a glare as defiant as his voice on 2012's scorching “Pay in Blood,” unleashed a pained smirk at the end of every galvanizing line of “Early Roman Kings” (also 2012) and converted 1965's stinging “Ballad of a Thin Man” into an ominous blues that could have been directed at many a current politician.
Perhaps most harrowing was 1997's “Not Dark Yet,” both because of Dylan’s sinister diction and the subtle musical arrangement, capped with Charlie Sexton’s eerie lead guitar.
Sexton was featured noticeably less often than in recent years while Donnie Herron played more fiddle than pedal steel guitar. For the first time in about a decade, there were two new band members — second guitarist Bob Britt, who appeared on Dylan’s 1997 album “Time Out of Mind,” and drummer Matt Chamberlain, who toured with Pearl Jam and recorded with the Wallflowers, Tori Amos and Pistol Annies. Even though Chamberlain signed on just nine gigs ago, the band was in the groove all night.
Dylan himself switched it up, too. Not only did he rework lyrics on 2006's “Thunder on the Mountain” and 1979's "Gotta Serve Somebody," from his gospel era, he eschewed a baby grand this time, opting for an upright piano, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. Unlike in St. Paul two years ago when he played only the keys, he picked up an electric guitar on the opening selection and blew his emotional harmonica on several numbers during the 100-minute concert.
In fact, Dylan spent much of the night front and center, bathed in brighter lights than usual, his flame of brown curls ignited by the wiry tension in his body, a clenched left hand punctuating the potency of his words — words still potent after all these years, especially when delivered with renewed conviction.