Dylan’s singing, but what’s he saying?

Icon’s performance lacks connection

Bob Dylan (here in 2006): Highlights were too few. Bob Dylan (here in 2006): Highlights were too few. (Associated Press/File)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / November 22, 2010

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LOWELL — No matter where he stood, Bob Dylan cast a tall shadow on the curtain backdrop at the Tsongas Center Saturday night. It had to have been 20 feet high and towered over the stage, often the only visual you could see clearly if you were far from the action.

Not just a feat of clever lighting, that shadow also spoke volumes about Dylan’s stature and prestige at 69. The older he gets, the more his influence looms over the history of popular music. That’s undeniable.

That did not, however, distract from the reality that seeing Dylan live is a tricky proposition these days. In the right venue and from the right seat, he’s glorious — gruff, yes, but sage and omnipotent as if descended from the mountaintop. His shows at the Citi Wang Theatre last year were testaments to that.

More often, though, Dylan’s concerts are frustrating — not just for the state of his voice, but rather his inability (or perhaps refusal) to communicate his message all that well. And if you’re not seeing him in a theater, where the sound isn’t as diffused, you spend half the show nudging the stranger next to you: “What’s he saying?’’

What he’s singing isn’t nearly as crucial as what he’s conveying. At the Tsongas Center, the sound mix was predictably not on Dylan’s side, but that might not have mattered, really. His voice — so grizzled and garbled that it’s now approaching Tom Waits’s timbre — was hard to parse not only for the lyrics but also Dylan’s connection to them.

Fans have grudgingly settled for less in exchange for the privilege of seeing such an important pop-culture icon. They’ve learned to savor the crumbs: snatches of familiar lines (“It ain’t me, babe / No, no, no’’ — aha!), fleeting moments when Dylan plays something besides keyboards, and the realization that he says nothing except for his usual, “Well, thank you, friends’’ before introducing the band at the end of each show.

Those are all long-established facts, yet you can’t help but want more sometimes. He delivered on a few songs, particularly with emotive renditions of “Tangled Up in Blue’’ and “Not Dark Yet.’’ It was telling that for both songs Dylan stepped up to a microphone front and center of the stage and played nothing more than a showman.

Anchored by ace guitarist Charlie Sexton, his backing band was uniformly excellent, skirting the line between workmanlike precision and casual dexterity. The shifts in mood were subtle but relevant, from the chugging freight-train blues of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ’’ to the supple starkness of “Visions of Johanna.’’

When Dylan wasn’t behind his keyboard, his own guitar licks, jagged and clanging, were highlights on “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’’ and “A Simple Twist of Fate.’’

By the time “Like a Rolling Stone’’ closed the show, a sea of hands recognized the melody enough to sing along. It was a touching scene — the voice of a generation leading the crowd in an anthem. A final question sprang to mind: Why can’t that voice connect on that level more often?

James Reed can be reached at


At: Tsongas Center, Saturday