Don’t look back, Bob Dylan — at least, not too far back.
You returned to the Orpheum Theatre — the place you used to own from 1979 to 1988 — on Tuesday night and you didn’t really give the faithful any folk, folk-rock or rock ’n’ roll. There was no “Like a Rolling Stone” or “All Along the Watchtower.” On this election night, there were no politicized pieces like “Masters of War” or “The Times They Are a-Changin.’ ”
No, instead of celebrating the distant past that elevated you to the Voice of a Generation (I know you hate that appellation) and a musical icon, you focused on the recent past — the comeback Dylan, the stuff critics and fans have been raving about since you returned with focus and force on “Time Out of Mind” in 1997.
You offered six songs from 2012’s “Tempest,” your most recent and darkest album. When was the last tour when you played so many tunes from one particular album? Probably back in the Christian days when you were delving deep into “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” — back when you owned the Orpheum.
I’m not complaining, though some of the 2,600 fans at the concert might. The material wasn’t familiar, except for “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” from “Blood on the Tracks” — two tracks you recorded in Minneapolis right after Christmas 1974. And, oh yeah, you encored with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” an easy-rolling piano version with some spiky guitar licks by Charlie Sexton.
A few other things set this apart from other Dylan concerts I’ve seen in recent years. One, you stood front and center, without a guitar, more than I’ve ever seen. You also played less grand piano than in the recent past. Not once did you pick up a guitar but you had a few nice harmonica turns, especially that mournful vibe on “Forgetful Heart.”
Two, this was the best sounding Dylan concert since you played five nights at the Orpheum in 1992. Remember those? The sets varied noticeably night to night and you had a few different opening acts, like the Jayhawks. But this time around you skipped an opener and opted for two sets. (Frankly, your hourlong second segment lacked the momentum of the opener, which peaked with the seething “Love Sick.”)
Three, this was a distinctively musical performance. Not that the others haven’t been. Maybe it was the superior quality of the sound in an intimate theater. But the 50-minute first set truly captured the kind of music you’ve been pursuing since “Time Out of Mind” — that pre-rock exploration of blues, country and — what should we call it? — vaudeville jazz, that song-and-dance-man stuff.
Loved the dark, mambo vibe of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ ” and the notion of giving “Workingman’s Blues #2” a hymn-like feel. My favorite had to be the jaunty “Duquesne Whistle” and the way you punched your lyrics. Your voice sounded pretty gravelly at first but, as is usually the case, it was much more effective after you warmed up. In fact, I thought your voice was less harsh and more evocative live than on “Tempest,” where its gruff gutturalness perfectly underscored the songs’ preoccupation with death.
Some people don’t think you can sing. OK, your voice might be an acquired taste, but when you closed the night with the ballad “Stay with Me” — that Sinatra song that he did for the movie “The Cardinal” in 1965, your big Dylan-goes-electric year — your voice hasn’t sounded so clear, so pure, so musical since I don’t know when.
You didn’t introduce the band members, who were stellar. Maybe you’ll do that on Wednesday and Thursday. And, I’m sure if your mother, may she rest in peace, had been at the Orpheum, she would have told you to get a shirt with a collar that’s not four sizes too big. But, to paraphrase “She Belongs To Me,” the second song you sang last night, the one other 1960s tune besides “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “You’ve got everything you need. You’re an artist. You don’t look back.” You don’t need to.