Bob Dylan had just songs and silence at Chicago’s Credit Union 1 Arena this week.

(November 1, 2019).  These days when you see a Bob Dylan concert, you will more than likely be thoroughly entertained, musically speaking.  After all, the man is a living legend with one of the most important song catalogues in rock-and-roll music history. 

But, if you’re expecting any crowd interaction from the man to accompany the many songs he performs as part of his current jaunt across America (and abroad), you should temper your expectations.

Bob Dylan, 2019

At the Credit Union 1 Arena (formerly the UIC Pavillion) here in Chicago Wednesday night, Oct. 30, Dylan performed 19 songs straight through, with no pausing to address the crowd, no song setup stories, no anecdotes about album recordings, no insights into his musical influences or what’s inspired him for the past nearly 60 years that he’s contributed to the American music tapestry.

It was just the man and his music, with Dylan (along with his stellar backing band) performing songs as only he could, in the same unorthodox talk-singing style we’ve been accustomed to for more than a half-century, except now with the talk part possibly being made more necessary by his many years of living. 

The Chicago stop was the second show in consecutive nights in the state of Illinois, and was the latest in a very aggressively scheduled national trek across America and Europe (he’s got 26 dates lined up over the next 38 days, including a stop in the U.K. just one night after performing for five consecutive nights stateside, beginning tonight in South Bend, IN).

Dylan, 78, is certainly putting in work this year, so doing a show with just music and no dialogue is a right the icon has certainly earned.  At this point, he can deliver his music in whatever way he sees fit, a fact that was established by the music-only approach but reinforced by the song selection for the show’s set list. 

Dylan has had two dozen Hot 100 chart hits, including classics like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “Just Like A Woman,” “Hurricane” and, of course, “Like A Rolling Stone,” a song so iconic that Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at the top of its 2010 updated list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (of course, we all know the song’s namesake had nothing to do with the magazine’s gratuitous No. 1 honor).

Yet the only one of his chart singles that made the set list in Chicago (and presumably everywhere else he’s currently playing) was his last to make the pop top 40, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” his 1979 gospel-rock entry that on this night he transformed from its original slow groove to a fast, rockabilly number that harkened back to 1950s blues.

That song’s transformation was consistent with the show’s apparent theme, as many of the tunes Dylan performed were either loose or alternate takes on what he originally envisioned when they were recorded.

Bob Dylan performs “Honest With Me” in Chicago on October 30, 2019.

For example, on “Honest With Me,” the Grammy-nominated track from his 2001 critically acclaimed Love and Theft album, Dylan and company played a completely revamped rhythm section and melody of the song.  In this live rendition, the singer’s voice surprisingly had even more clarity than the 18-year-old original, in which Dylan sounded as if he’d downed a fifth of his favorite libation before recording it.  On this night, “Honest With Me” was practically unrecognizable, but nonetheless good.

Same went for the show’s opening number, “Things Have Changed,” the 2000 Oscar-winner for Best Song from the motion picture Wonder Boys.  What was originally a beat-heavy, country-rock number was transformed into an alternative-pop arrangement with Dylan rap-singing the song’s apocalyptic lyrics as only he can.

And while Dylan has never operated under any false pretenses about where he stands as a pure singer, his vocals were in relatively fine form Wednesday night considering the amount of wear and tear on his vocal chords.

At times it even felt like Dylan’s cadences had evolved into a more rapping style, with his spoken-word delivery slightly resembling that of a hip-hop artist’s on songs like “Honest With Me” and the 1965 classic “Highway 61 Revisited,” the tune that perhaps most closely resembled its original version, at least musically.

Dylan performs “When I Paint My Masterpiece” in Chicago on October 30, 2019.

More impressive, however, than Dylan’s singing – or rapping – were his piano and harmonica playing.   Dylan spent much of the night seated at his upright piano banging away at the keys, or in his trademark hunched stance at the drum-riser at the rear of the stage, rarely stepping any closer to the front of the stage than halfway, seemingly to further avoid any possibility of audience interaction. 

The tunes that mostly benefited from Dylan’s harmonica were the tender “Simple Twist of Fate” from 1975, and the 1963 love ballad “Girl From the North Country,” both of which prominently featured the instrument in their original forms.  

Dylan’s harmonica and piano added even more depth to these songs than what was already being provided by the five talented musicians joining him onstage, including longtime contributor, guitarist Charlie Sexton.

But what stood out the most were the interesting song choices.  While still career-spanning, Dylan eschewed many fan favorites for lesser known tunes that, in retrospect, still tell as much of a story as the popular hits. 

For instance, instead of “George Jackson” or “Hurricane” – both tributes to black heroic figures (as Dylan saw them) – there was “Lenny Bruce,” his 1981 tribute to a white Jewish comedian who’d died 15 years earlier.  

Instead of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” there was “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” a more recent, somberly themed song (if that’s even possible) from his 1997 album Time out of Mind.

And in lieu of the hopeful classic “The Times – They Are A-Changin’” there was the aforementioned “Things Have Changed,” and the even more foreboding “Not Dark Yet,” a slow, brooding doom-and-gloom number from that same 1997 album.

Dylan sings “Make You Feel My Love” at the Credit Union 1 Arena in Chicago on October 30, 2019.

Dylan did perform some more uptempo numbers, which were either straight-up blues rockers or variations of the genre, including “Early Roman Kings,” in which Dylan famously declared “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” and “Thunder on the Mountain,” which offered a sharp change in tempo to its immediate predecessor, “Not Dark Yet.”

All in all, it was a satisfying show.  That we didn’t have an opportunity to hear Dylan tell backstories about any of the song’s origins between their performances, and that we may never get to hear him sing some of the bigger classics again, were the only disappointments.

Still, any time you get to see a man of Dylan’s stature perform at this stage in the game is considered a blessing.  

DJRob

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s set list for the Credit Union 1 Arena in Chicago on October 30, 2019:

  1. Things Have Changed
  2. It Ain’t Me, Babe
  3. Highway 61 Revisited
  4. Simple Twist of Fate
  5. Can’t Wait
  6. When I Paint My Masterpiece 
  7. Honest With Me
  8. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
  9. Make You Feel My Love
  10. Pay in Blood
  11. Lenny Bruce
  12. Early Roman Kings
  13. Girl from the North Country
  14. Not Dark Yet
  15. Thunder on the Mountain
  16. Soon After Midnight
  17. Gotta Serve Somebody 
  18. Ballad of a Thin Man
  19. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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