CALIFORNIA – When the Rolling Stones’ first North American tour in seven years gets underway next month, what they will be offering up, at its essence, is an oldies show.
A stratospherically priced oldies show, heavy on the razzle-dazzle, no one can doubt. But with the band’s last album having arrived in 2005 and no follow-up looming on the horizon, it will be a career retrospective – a victory lap, of sorts.
Bob Dylan is a contemporary of the Rolling Stones, having celebrated his own 50th anniversary in the spotlight last year. But, unlike his Anglo counterparts, he has continued to release new material at a steady clip and tour relentlessly, which accounts in part for why he turned up at such a seemingly unlikely spot as the Convocation Center at California University of Pennsylvania Saturday night. It was part of a run of college and university shows that is taking the soon-to-be-72-year-old to similarly out-of-the-way locales as Bowling Green, Ohio, and Murray, Ky. When you log roughly 100 shows a year, you eventually reach every crossroads.
And Dylan’s 90-minute set emphasized the new. Of its 16 songs, only four came from the singer-songwriter’s 1960s and 1970s heyday, when he was hailed as a virtual messianic prophet by the baby-boom generation, and only two of those tunes could be classified as hits. So it’s either a mark of obstinate genius or obdurate eccentricity that an artist whose catalog includes such touchstones as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Forever Young,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and on and on, goes ahead and decides that, “Nah, I’m not playing those. I’m playing my newer stuff.”
Audience members willing to go along for the ride were well-rewarded. On off-nights, Dylan concerts can be haphazard rambles, leaving even the most devout fan scratching their heads. But the playing by Dylan and his band at Cal U. was tight and polished, with the recent addition of Fabulous Thunderbirds veteran Duke Robillard on lead guitar giving the proceedings a bluesy edge. Never conventionally pretty, Dylan’s voice is now a cigar-charred, Cookie Monster-like croak, but he used it to good effect, particularly on the gospel-style ballad “What Good Am I?” and the faintly menacing “Love Sick.”
Dylan’s penchant for toying with the arrangements of his songs was mostly kept in check, even though the tempo went up a notch on “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Blind Willie McTell.” The opening chords of “Early Roman Kings,” from Dylan’s 2012 album, “Tempest,” drew an early cheer from the almost-capacity house, perhaps in part to their resemblance to the opener of George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone” (which, it should be noted, is a virtual rewrite of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”). Unlike some other recent Dylan concerts, which found him hammering away at a grand piano whether the song called for it or not, the instrument was used tastefully and sparingly Saturday night.
The Cal U. concert was Dylan’s third stop in Washington County in seven years, following appearances at Consol Energy Park in North Franklin Township in 2006 and 2009. If he continues to perform at the level displayed Saturday, he should continue to be a most welcome visitor.