BOSTON — Just as Earth revolves around the sun, Bob Dylan plays concerts. Sometimes he’s supporting a new release, sometimes not. Depending on the commercial climate, the venues get bigger or smaller or bigger again — around here, I’ve seen him at the TD Garden (then known as the Fleet Center), Avalon (R.I.P), and Campanelli Stadium, home of the Brockton Rox. Thursday he played a packed Agganis Arena.
There tends to be a hit-and-miss quality to Dylan in concert, largely coming down to the ability of the current members of his ever-evolving band to sound inventive and tight at the same time. Dylan’s vocals, which on this outing sounded pretty strong for this era, figure in. He also played an occasionally audible piano.
And: the songs! One of the richest and most satisfying oeuvres in popular music. People are generally hip by now to the fact that the live arrangements for most have changed dramatically. It’s become a critics’ tic to cite this as an example of the artist’s ever-questing spirit, but in recent years, many of his originals seem to be mashing together onstage into variations on a similar upbeat, country-rock shuffle — animated by the spirit of Chuck Berry. Given the stylistic variety of the newer stuff on record, it's a shame so much of its personality is lost in concert.
“Honest With Me” romped with force but lost its sense of paranoid exasperation. “Pay in Blood” was a full-throated growl but its swinging, cruel swagger was flattened. The amped-up approach did sit well on “Thunder on the Mountain,” putting a needed late-set charge into the room.
Dylan’s originals were complemented by four selections from his recent gush of reconsidered romantic standards, many associated with Frank Sinatra. For these, he left the piano and handled a mike stand upstage; “Melancholy Mood” was a highlight, making a delightfully smooth landing.
Trainspotters looking for greatest hits had only “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (played at a sprightly tempo) and a faithfully stinging “Highway 61 Revisited” to content them over the first 70 minutes of the show. As a great lover of Dylan’s work since he began defying nature and history by launching a late-career resurgence 20 years ago, I found it a treat to hear stuff like four selections from 2012’s “Tempest.” Also from this bountiful era, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” lacked most of its elegiac grace, though “Love Sick” walked with welcome bite. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton and drummer George Receli sounded sharp all night.
A perhaps unique thing about Dylan is that he can alternate deep-dive box sets examining isolated periods of his long career with new, vital, legacy-enhancing albums. His insistence Thursday on highlighting his later period was admirable; I’ll take it over a rote recitation of brittle hits any day.
Dylan and band breathed fire two summers ago at Tanglewood, but this particular night of the Never Ending Tour felt more workmanlike. Small matter, really: It’s worth it to watch a one-man Mount Rushmore of American musical tradition do his thing. As surely as the sun shines.Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.