Bob Dylan was trending on Twitter earlier this week, but not for the ghoulish reason that usually attends a sudden burst of interest in a 78-year-old.
As it turned out, someone had shared Rolling Stone magazine’s list of all-time greatest singers, which dates from 2008 and places Dylan at No. 7, ahead of more gymnastic vocal talents such as Whitney Houston and Freddie Mercury. As things devolved, some wondered whether what Dylan does can be described as singing at all.
You’d think that a half-century spent as one of rock’s primary cultural avatars — and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Nobel laureate to boot — would render such discussion moot. But no.
To be sure, Dylan’s sometimes wheezy yawp is not for everyone, but who’s to say what constitutes singing, anyway? Not you, me, the judges on a TV talent show, or even Rolling Stone, really.
Still, country artist Margo Price nailed it pretty well when she tweeted that she doesn’t judge a singer on vocal ability, but rather “whether or not I think they’re telling the truth.”
Tuesday night at Stifel Theatre, Dylan spoke many truths — or indeed, sang them, because he actually spoke only to introduce his band. But that band (sporting two new members, drummer Matt Chamberlain and guitarist Bob Britt), along with his songs — many of which featured fresh arrangements that kept his vocals front-and-center — and yes, his voice itself, were all in fine form.
The 100-minute set, which varied considerably from Dylan’s previous performance here (at the Fox in 2015), started with a hard-charging version of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” with Dylan playing guitar, something he hasn’t done in concert very much in recent years.
He stayed on guitar for “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” before switching to an upright piano for a rollicking “Highway 61 Revisited.” From there he moved between piano and singing unencumbered, maintaining a wide stance center stage, his face wearing something between a grin and a grimace.
“Can’t Wait,” one of a handful of songs he drew from the 1997 album “Time Out of Mind,” was an early highlight, as its taut arrangement, driven by Chamberlain’s drums, reflected the lyrics’ restlessness and impatience.
Dylan’s songs are continually shapeshifting, and it’s not just the music. During a lovely take on “When I Paint My Masterpiece” led by Donnie Herron’s fiddle, he changed the line about hurrying back to his hotel for an assignation “with a pretty little girl from Greece.” Instead, he sang, he was merely going back “to wash out my clothes.”
“Lenny Bruce,” a decidedly left field choice for inclusion in the set, also had some lyrical amendments. But the song itself, which Dylan played quietly on piano, hit hard. After all, what does this era need more right now than someone like Bruce, who Dylan posits as a fearless truth-teller, consequences be damned?
That song and the one that followed it — “Early Roman Kings,” on which the guitars of Britt and Charlie Sexton snarled and spit, tethered by Tony Garnier’s thrashing bass — formed the show’s high-water mark.
Dylan time and again proved his vocal mettle, crooning “Girl from the North Country” and “Make You Feel My Love,” the latter a smooth enough number to have been covered by Adele and Billy Joel. His brooding, spectral take on “Not Dark Yet,” meanwhile, was pure middle-of-the-night Sinatra. Take that, Twitter.
The set-closing “Gotta Serve Somebody” was recast as a full-tilt rocker. The encore included the classic “Ballad of a Thin Man,” but rather than end the night with another obvious choice, Dylan opted for a bluesy version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” The vocal bray that is often imitated and mocked by nonfans was in full effect for that one. But Dylan, old master that he is, can make that work for him as well.