Bob Dylan doesn’t care about Bob Dylan. Specifically, he doesn’t care about the “Bob Dylan” that anybody else may have in mind. Anyone who buys a ticket to see him perform isn’t getting the Dylan they want, they’re getting the Dylan that feels like showing up. Friday at the Orpheum, on the first of three nearly sold-out shows (tickets were reportedly still available for Sunday’s performance as of press time), that Dylan was focused and steady, largely interested in only one record – 2020′s “Rough And Rowdy Ways,” his last album of all-new material – and in one mood, a simmering, world-weary grumble that he deployed equally whether staring down death in “Black Rider” (which was “Ballad of a Thin Man” if he weren’t snarling at Mr. Jones but begging him for a reprieve) or tossing out jokes in “I Contain Multitudes.”
The title of the latter seemed ironic given the unwavering tone of the performances, but that flattening actually let the legendarily mercurial artist mess with the arrangements of songs he hasn’t had the time to get sick of yet. In the case of “False Prophet,” what was end-of-the-world raucous on record became more of a heavy brood, as though guitarist Bob Britt was told to play tastefully instead of nearly unrestrained. (Drummer Jerry Pentecost gently goaded the rest of the band into a quiet fury, however.) And “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” was less Jimmy Buffett than a Roxy Music that had been sleeping in their suits in a dirty backwoods bar for days.
Planted at a piano for the duration — where it was easy to miss the sparkles on his pants, a wink of showmanship from a man who barely addressed his audience the entire night — Dylan at times recalled no one so much as John Lee Hooker, with both his playing and his singing operating on their own primal sense of time. In “Key West,” “False Prophet,” the ticky-tacky blues of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and others, his instrumental flourishes were often more for sonic coloration than for musical effect, and his chaos piano in the interlude of “Every Grain of Sand” began actively conflicting with the rhythm set by Pentecost, who nonetheless held steady and kept the song from collapsing.
Even with that and his wizened, tuneless squeak that made flecks of meaning flit in and out all night, Dylan offered a fair bit of variety throughout. His band forged “My Own Version of You” into a light-footed clomp that might not wish you specific ill will but wouldn’t lift a finger to prevent it, either, and the slow, bluesy shuffle of “Crossing the Rubicon” let enough space between the beats to occasionally drop away into dead silence. But “When I Paint My Masterpiece” was a happy horse clop, the sharp guitar chords that signaled the band entrance into “Gotta Serve Somebody” gave way to an easy, lopsided beat, and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” was gentle and tender as it pushed forward.
”I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was seemingly the entire concert in microcosm. Beginning with a loose, free-time intro verse, it crashed into a birth-of-rock-’n’-roll blues interlude before slowing down into a hearty and energetic blues. It was Dylan’s many moods bound into one, and a wild ride from start to finish.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
At the Orpheum Theatre, Friday night