This is where Bob Dylan is at these days: a rough-hewn troubadour on tour ostensibly for the next two years, but more likely the rest of his life. An equal-opportunity crooner as much for the alley cats and winos as the neat and tidy, leading an earthy, nocturnal symphony of ballads and blues for any and all.
The Dylan of the ‘60s challenged the conscience of the world. The Dylan of the ‘70s deconstructed his own deity and replaced it with that of an enigmatic artist, perpetually restless, that has remained his persona for the next five decades. The voice is his and his alone, at this point, both symbolically and in the literal sense; rolling out guttural snarls of lyrics or seducing with a whisper. The ultimate improvisational instrument; one never knows, from word to word, where it will go next.
The American experience channeled through the American art forms of jazz, blues, and rock-and-roll makes appearances throughout. Dylan absorbs each genre into a thoughtfully-paced dissemination of songs from his latest, Rough and Rowdy Ways, loading half the set with tracks from the album. His five-piece backing band keeps a watchful eye over his every move at the piano, an ear on every inflection of his cryptic delivery. It’s a delicate task the quintet handles exceptionally well.
Long Beach’s Terrace Theater is a cellphone-less, sell-out on this otherwise quiet Juneteenth holiday Monday evening. Up the freeway, in the previous week, Dylan held a multi-night stand in Hollywood. This is a one-off, completing his SoCal turn of dates, and draws out an audience spanning three generations, at least. Some refuse their seats to dance all night in the wings. All rise in gratitude after every song’s conclusion. Multiple times, Dylan casually saunters out to center-stage for a quick acknowledgement, then back to work.
It’s a crisp performance, opening with Dylan on electric guitar. 55 years ago, that notion scared a lot of people. Tonight it’s met with sustained applause. The house lights stay lit, dimmed slightly. The stage lights are low. Dylan and his black-suited five move as noir silhouettes intent on hypnotizing their 3,000 guests.
And they do, dropping vivid memories of old into the moment, beginning with a pairing of “Watching the River Flow” and “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” and peaking with a spellbinding trio of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.”
The last of those three waltzed ever so affectingly, landing with a late lyric that encapsulated the Dylan before us, the Dylan of 2022. He was sure to articulate this one, softly, strongly, and clearly. “I hope,” Bob Dylan sang, “that the gods go easy with me.”