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Meet Bob Dylan, crowd-pleaser.
“We played this song the other night, and we got a request to do it again,” the 81-year-old rock ’n’ roll icon said as he hit the home stretch of his deeply satisfying concert Tuesday night at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre. “So we’re gonna do it again.”
The song was the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” which caused a commotion (first in the room, later on the internet) when Dylan sang it onstage last week in Oakland for the first time in 15 years. Had he read the breathless fan-site headlines? Perused the response on social media? Little about his legendarily idiosyncratic career suggests that he had.
Yet here he was, practically going all Paul McCartney in giving the people what they wanted. To finish the tune, Dylan even stood up from behind his piano, shuffled over to grab an electric guitar, then eased back down onto his bench to pick out a wild, unruly solo.
The capacity crowd erupted just as he seemed to know — seemed to hope? — it would.
Tuesday’s sold-out show was the first of three through Thursday at the Pantages on a West Coast tour behind 2020’s excellent “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” (Dylan also will stop next week at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach and at the Santa Barbara Bowl.) And, to be clear, the evening still bore traces of Dylan’s cantankerous streak: Cellphones had to be locked inside pouches; drinks weren’t allowed in the theater, nor were photographers; latecomers, including famous ones like Brad Pitt, had to wait in the lobby until a break between songs.
Imagine Rod Stewart making the same demands at his Tuesday gig just up the 101 Freeway at the Hollywood Bowl and you’ll get a sense of the uniquely privileged esteem Dylan enjoys compared to his classic-rock peers.
As a musical experience, though, this performance felt like nothing so much as a gift: a thoroughly engrossing 90-minute outpouring of pulpy juke-joint roots music and spectral folk-soul balladry, with Dylan in richly expressive voice and his bandmates accompanying him with an almost superhuman sensitivity.
The stage was set like a dimly lit ballroom in “Twin Peaks”; in a further Lynchian touch, guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio and pedal-steel player Donnie Herron — all slender white dudes with neatly cropped salt-and-pepper haircuts — looked nearly identical in the low light, which established a dreamy, semi-surreal vibe. On bass was Tony Garnier and on drums the subtle and funky Charley Drayton, a recent — and very shrewd — addition to Dylan’s live band.
True to its billing as part of the Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour, as opposed to the Never Ending Tour rubric Dylan used for decades before the pandemic temporarily forced him off the road, Tuesday’s show featured all but one of the 10 tracks from his latest LP. Beyond “Friend of the Devil,” the other oldies he played included “Watching the River Flow,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Gotta Serve Somebody” and a rollicking, extremely lascivious “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”
Which isn’t exactly crowd-pleasing protocol for an act touring his 39th studio album. But Dylan sounded so emotionally engaged in singing the new stuff that nobody even thought about tuning out while awaiting the hits.
He struck a moving, inquisitive tone in “Mother of Muses,” about the ways music and culture intertwine, as his guitarists’ long melodic lines unfolded around him. His voice was a ghoulish croak in the “Frankenstein”-like “My Own Version of You,” which Drayton gave such a lusty swing that a lady wearing one of those plastic bachelorette tiaras popped up from her seat near the front to do a few twirls.
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” got a completely different arrangement than on the album: a kind of dainty string-band riff on Pachelbel’s Canon that led Dylan into a gorgeous reverie in the guise of an old-timer searching for immortality. And then there was “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” the night’s most profound vocal performance. As he worried an obsessive piano lick, he kept stretching out the end of the song’s verses, pushing up seemingly as high as he could go before dropping down an octave or more to evoke a man who’s seen people destroy each other but who still believes in love.
Why so generous with his feelings? Dylan’s at a point in his life and career when the only awards and honors left are on the level of the Bob Dylan Center, a newly opened museum in Tulsa dedicated to him a la Graceland, and the reported $300 million payout he received last year for his songwriting catalog, which set a new standard for rock acts. He's also got a book coming this fall described as "a master class on the art and craft of songwriting" — an indication, perhaps, that he's been thinking through how best to preserve the raw materials of his titanic legacy.
But after a couple of years without audiences to confound, he gave the distinct impression at the Pantages that in his ninth decade it’s simply doing his soul some good to bring people joy.
Get it while it lasts.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.