Oh, hello. I was waiting for you.
Not really. I didn’t want to give you the satisfaction of surprising me, was all.
Consider it forgotten. So . . . Bob Dylan. Bobby Z. The Bard of Hibbing. Ol’ Mumble Pants.
. . . Sure?
He’s coming to town, you know. This Friday through Sunday, at the Orpheum.
Indeed. First time in Boston in two years!
What do we think he’ll do?
How so? Like, the songs? The style? The vibe?
Any of it. All of it.
Well, the thing about Bob Dylan is, you never know. That’s sort of his whole deal. When you think he’ll march left, he bolts to the right. When it seems like he’s going up, he slumps down. When it looks like he’s going to zig, he releases a raucous polka-party take on “Must Be Santa.” He likes to keep us on our toes, Mr. Zimmerman does.
That’s new, right?
What? Where have you been? Dylan has been a chaos-agent wild card ever since he was a Greenwich Village folk singer. Examples of him antagonizing his audience — not just his nebulous audience but the actual, literal audience in front of him — have slipped into legend. Going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Responding to a disgruntled British folkie’s cry of “Judas!” by directing the Band to “play it [expletive] loud” before launching into the most poisonous version of “Like a Rolling Stone” imaginable. Commemorating his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award with an incomprehensible “Masters of War” and a rambling, fidgety speech. That sort of thing.
I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.
No, for real, it’s . . . Oh, I see. You’re quoting Dylan’s immediate reply to the “Judas!” thing.
Imagine me winking at you right now.
Nice. OK, respect. But basically, when you’ve made a career of that kind of direct frustration of your audience’s expectations, it makes trying to anticipate what you’ll do at any given performance, if not a fool’s errand then an exercise fraught with potential land mines.
So you know nothing, is what you’re saying in a weirdly roundabout manner.
First of all, rude. Second, not true! First of all, we know the name of the tour.
Wait, I know this! It’s the Never Ending Tour.
No, that’s over.
Of course it is.
Like I said: You never know with this guy. The Never Ending Tour was the (Dy)law of the (Dy)land from 1988 until December 2019 (longer than Johnny Carson was host of “The Tonight Show”). Fittingly enough for a songwriter whose lyrics have squeezed a great deal of mileage out of not just biblical allusions but apocalyptic imagery since “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in 1963, it took a global plague to finish off the Never Ending Tour. For this post-historical era, Dylan has dubbed his current trek the “Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour,” named after the 2020 release that is, as of this typing, his most recent album of new material. (Again, though, say it with me: You Never Know.)
So what’s the difference, exactly?
Well, there’s that album. Dylan’s been playing substantially the same songs that he played at Milwaukee’s tour kickoff way back in November 2021: the bulk of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” — not including the nearly 17-minute “American Pie”-style JFK-assassination reverie “Murder Most Foul,” which if setlist.fm is to be believed he’s never played even once, the coward — plus a song apiece from albums like “Blonde on Blonde,” “John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline,” and “Slow Train Coming” alongside a cover or two. If you’ve got tickets, here’s hoping you’re all in on “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” is the point.
Is “Rough and Rowdy Ways” any good?
It’s very good, in fact. A rumpled groan from achy bones rising up to dance one more time. Recommended.
But I want to hear “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”?
No “Like a Rolling Stone”?
Once upon a time, maybe, but now you’re on your own.
What about . . .
Probably not, but bear in mind that all of this is what we think we know, how this tour has gone in the recent past. As history has taught us time and time again, Dylan lives to confound expectations. We can compare, say, the last time he played Boston — at the Wang Theatre in November 2021 — with, say, the concert he played just this past Monday in Schenectady, N.Y., note that the setlists differed by a mere two songs and consider the case closed. But it’s not that simple. It’s never been that simple.
Because Dylan has, since the day he reinvented himself by adopting a poet’s name and probably well before that, been an artist who has deliberately cultivated opacity. To watch “Dont Look Back” is to see someone working hard to give nothing away, to foreground the myth and obscure the person. And when you’ve done that for six decades and counting, it generates a level of mystique so complex that even when you hew to the utterly mundane — like constructing your live show around your new album and sticking pretty consistently to it — your audience has been trained never to feel like they’re standing on stable ground. They’ve learned not to get used to any one thing, no matter how long that’s been the thing he’s been doing, lest they get too comfortable only to find that things have changed.
Hey, that’s the title of a Dylan song.
It sure is, buddy. It sure is.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.