In his first home state gig in four years, he seemed strikingly engaged in Rochester.
ROCHESTER, MINN. - Maybe Bob Dylan had a reassuring checkup at the Mayo Clinic.
He sure seemed to be in a good mood Tuesday night at the Mayo Civic Center. Well, it's not like he said "Hello Minnesota" during his first gig in his home state in four years. But he smiled often, danced a bit and displayed emphatic body language. He seemed very present.
That's not always the case with the laconic bard from Hibbing. He never says much other than introducing his band members, which he did Tuesday near the end of his nearly two-hour set. He sometimes seems indifferent in concert, like he's stuck inside an arena with His Never Ending Tour blues again. But on this night, he was fully engaged.
Since he shifted earlier this year to primarily baby grand piano in concert, Dylan not only runs the show musically but lets his piano dominate it. For better or worse, his 88s were in the forefront all night, which meant few guitar solos (a handful of 12-bar turns for Stu Kimball and a few fills for Charlie Sexton) and not too much harmonica from the maestro himself.
Like Tori Amos, Dylan assumes an awkward-looking position on the piano bench. It's almost like he's sitting on the corner of the seat so he can face the fans, not the keyboard. On Tuesday, he often propped his left foot on a sound monitor as he tickled the ivories. A couple of times, he held a harmonica in his left hand and plunked the piano with his right.
As for Dylan's piano playing, let's politely say it's not his best instrument. He has mostly eschewed guitar for the last few years (rumors of arthritis) but did play electric guitar on one piece, "Simple Twist of Fate," on Tuesday. On piano, he vamped on chords -- some jazzy, some bluesy -- but rarely offered melodic passages (save for a "Chopsticks"-like turn). Boogie and rockabilly seemed to be his forte as he tried to channel Jerry Lee Lewis with limited success.
But none of the 7,000 fans bought a ticket expecting Dylan to rival Elton John or even Ben Folds. You go to Dylan for the songs, to hear a sampling from one of the deepest and richest catalogues of the past 50 years. Tuesday's 17-song set proffered a balance of pre-1976 classics and tunes from his series of first-rate albums since 1997. He did not play anything from "Tempest," his new album due on Sept. 11. Maybe he'll give fans a taste of "Tempest" in St. Paul on Nov. 7 at Xcel Energy Center -- his first Twin Cities gig since 2008.
Dylan first-timers at Mayo (there were plenty of kids with their parents), might have been wondering what all the fuss is about for this curly haired curmudgeon. No, he's not much of a singer these days. His voice was a bit croaky, his phrasing free-wheeling, his melodies elusive. At least he wasn't mumbling, though the cavernous arena was.
A few selections, including the pretty "Simple Twist of Fate" and the surging, seething "Ballad of a Thin Man" (the night's highlight), were instantly recognizable. A couple of classics -- "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower" -- seemed shortchanged by too much formless piano and not enough formidable guitar.
But you couldn't argue with Dylan's spirit. At 71, he looked healthier (not so pale and gaunt) than he has in his most recent Twin Cities appearances. He looked sharp in his long marching-band jacket, beige slacks and two-tone cowboy boots. Maybe he was just happy to be back in Minnesota.
Set list: www.startribune.com/artcetera
Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719