People play music for a lot of different reasons. Bob Dylan's reasons have always been his own, for good or ill, and we've been guessing (largely unsuccessfully) at what those are for half a century now. The Dylan who showed up Saturday night at the Riviera Theatre seemed driven by the same reasons that fueled him on Halloween weekends in 2009 and 2007. He plays music now because he apparently just can't stop.
This is the Dylan we've seen for about the last 15 years. He can put on a great show -- as he did Saturday, livelier than I've seen him in a long time -- but he's a musical Grady Tripp, the protagonist of Michael Chabon's 1995 novel Wonder Boys, a writer highly acclaimed for his early work but unable to finish a follow-up, a nearly 3,000-page manuscript with no conclusion in sight. Dylan keeps touring (playing a lot of old songs) and recording (playing new songs that sound like old ones, love letters to his collection of 78s), and he seems no closer to another cohesive statement. The introduction Saturday night referred to Dylan, 69, as the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll; he's more like a distinguished chair, a professor like Tripp, a relic worth learning from -- but only in the history department.
The Dylan roadhouse revue plows ahead at full steam, though. Still backed by a beefy band, led by chiseled guitarist Charlie Sexton, Dylan croaked through a remarkably fan-friendly set list, switching between organ, guitar and harmonica. Things really swung in the middle of the two-hour show, with Sexton on a hollow-body guitar for a jumping-jive version of "Summer Days," then a slow, swaying retelling of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." "Cold Irons Bound" ("Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds") thundered with big drums, courtesy of George Recile, and Dylan stood at the microphone visibly at ease while spitting out the words and blowing a hot harp solo, then brushing his gray locks back underneath his grey hat -- and smiling, a rarity which held through the cool pace of "Simple Twist of Fate" and surfaced later on a workaday run through "Tangled Up in Blue."
Like any other recent Dylan show, Saturday's concert rocked and rolled, the music taking point over the poet laureate's utterly unintelligible words. Six hours before show time, "Daily Show" comic Jon Stewart addressed his Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, railing against the deafening bluster of American media, saying, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." That certainly applies to Dylan's blaring road show.
But it's worth building on that: On the same day Stewart rallied moderates on the National Mall to inject a desperately needed voice of reason into the current political and media shouting match, isn't it a drag to see Dylan -- the Bob Dylan, still roundly identified by the impact of a social conscience he displayed four decades ago -- gliding through a greatest-hits set, delivering narratives and messages so far out of context only skillful professors could apply them to modern times?
Steve Earle once recorded a song wishing Woody Guthrie, Dylan's original hero, would come back, claiming we urgently needed a strong voice of protest like that again. I'd give anything to have Dylan back in that mode, if only for one, good song. Not for nostalgia's sake, but because if Dylan of all people had performed the musical call for sanity Saturday at Stewart's rally instead of (lord have mercy) Kid Rock, his gravitas and power would have cut right through that amplified blather. The whole world would have heard it.
With great power comes great responsibility and all that, but Dylan just rolls around in his bus playing ballrooms and ballparks -- playing a mean organ, mind you, but essentially mute. As I said, every musician has his reasons. Even Guthrie only wrote protest songs for a few years. Dylan long ago shrugged off the responsibility of being a voice for anyone but himself, and that's fine. Unfortunate at this particular moment, but fine. His reasons for playing now are merely to put on a good show, which he does. For whatever that's worth.
BOB DYLAN'S SET LIST ON SATURDAY NIGHT
"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"
"The Man in Me"
"Things Have Changed"
"Positively 4th Street"
"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
"Cold Irons Bound"
"Simple Twist of Fate"
"High Water (For Charlie Patton)"
"If You Ever Go to Houston"
"Highway 61 Revisited"
"Tangled Up in Blue"
"Thunder on the Mountain"
"Ballad of a Thin Man"
"Like a Rolling Stone"