Though it cannot be denied that Bob Dylan is a living treasure and one of the most important and influential figures in the history of American song craft, the 68-year-old legend recently released a strong contender for the worst album of his storied career, "Christmas in the Heart."
It may have been a noble effort to raise money for charity. But the new disc of massacred holiday standards is nonetheless a miserable listening experience.
Thankfully, there wasn't a harsh, croaking rendition of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," an endless, torturous version of "Little Drummer Boy" or a weird threat-not-a promise take on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in evidence Thursday night as the favorite son of Hibbing, Minn., played the first of a three-night stand at the Aragon Ballroom.
In fact, in his patently perverse, willfully noncommercial, change-it-up-every-night and "zag whenever they expect me to zig" style, Dylan completely ignored his new album. Instead, the man whose taped introduction branded him "the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll" gave us a typically atypical night, mixing a heavy sampling of songs from the last three studio albums before "Christmas in the Heart" with a handful of his most memorable anthems.
As usual, many of these songs were barely recognizable, as Dylan shuffled, rewrote, rearranged and just plain messed with them however the spirit of the moment struck him.
One notable failure: A particularly unsubtle and heavy-handed thrashing of "Just Like a Woman," part of a generally sluggish start to the two-hour show. (Dylan began promptly at 7:30 p.m., and there was no opening act.)
Among the standout high points: a revved-up "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum"; "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," which was turned inside out and upside down; a rollicking and rambunctious "Highway 61 Revisited," and a tense and dramatic "Ain't Talkin'."
After a particularly inspired and reliably consistent stretch in the '90s, when his shows were marked by their furious guitar rave-ups and intense interaction with his crack band, Dylan's concerts have become much more uneven and sluggish in recent years. The star has spent much of his time onstage rigidly standing behind an electronic keyboard, reportedly because arthritis has made his guitar playing more difficult.
And the voice... oh, that voice. Even though of us who've applauded its harsh punk charms, forgiven its infamous limitations and championed it as a direct conduit to the songwriter's soul must admit that it's becoming ever harsher, more limited and sloppier, without an appreciable increase in soulfulness.
The current tour marks the return of Austin, TX, guitarist Charlie Sexton, one of Dylan's best ever sidemen, and a big reason why those '90s shows were so fiery. But the bandleader still spent much of Thursday night behind that dreaded synthesizer. When he did don a guitar, he hardly moved and barely acknowledged Sexton, second guitarist Stu Kimball and bassist Tony Garnier at his right side, much less drummer George Recile behind him.
Indeed, the only time Dylan seemed undiminished was when he blowing harp. His harmonica propelled "Ballad of a Thin Man," the last song before the encore, and the evening's climax.
Overall, this was a better night with Bob than the last few this critic has had, but it was far from the best.
The most hardcore fans will contend that any night with their hero is a privilege mere mortals should gratefully welcome without complaints. But I bet that even many of them are glad to have been spared his particularly unique reading of "Winter Wonderland."