His detachment has grown into cosmic-grade remoteness. His melodies fade, more often than not these days, into a raspy, toneless whine. His investment in proving how little he has to prove is now legendary. So what an exhilarating surprise for fans at the opening of Bob Dylan's three-night residency at Avalon to see the mercurial performer in truly rare form, from the opening notes of "Maggie's Farm" to the searing finale, "All Along the Watchtower."
That's not to say that Dylan has suddenly traded in his mysterious ways. Entering on the heels of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and a taped intro that referenced his flirtations with Jesus, substance abuse, and commercial irrelevance, Dylan -- in a black Stetson and a red jacket -- slipped behind an electric keyboard at the far end of the stage, where he remained, facing sideways, throughout the nearly two-hour set.
A shiny gold statuette was perched behind him on an amplifer; it appeared for all the world to be the Oscar that Dylan won in the Best Song category for "Things Have Changed" from the film "Wonder Boys." He didn't pick up a guitar and didn't speak a word except to introduce his five band members -- among them two drummers, which proved to be an exercise in both gimmickry and futility.
But Dylan was on, in the truest sense. His singing was wildly vivid, a grab-bag of yelps and growls and long-held notes that seemed to defy his own well-established range. His body was in constant -- if subtle -- motion, lunging through a thigh-slapping read of "Highway 61 Revisited," and practically shimmying to the jaunty shuffle of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and the uncharacteristically spry, winsome "Tell Me That It Isn't True." That lightness colored both the song choices and the mood of the entire evening. Dylan -- generally not a jocular fellow -- smiled often. During "Summer Days," a quick, jazzy blues from 2001's "Love and Theft" and the main set's closing number, he laughed so hard he couldn't get through the final verse. Maybe it was the laid-back, bar-band vibe of this particular backing group, which featured bassist Tony Garnier, guitarists Larry Campbell and Freddie Koella, and drummers George Recile and Richie Hayward. But even a biting song like "Just Like a Woman" was delivered with an oddly kind-hearted -- and barely recognizable -- warmth.
As usual, Dylan turned some well-loved chestnuts inside out. He drained "It Ain't Me Babe" of its folky intimacy, playing it instead as a stately march, complete with upright bass and rolling snare drums. And a cool, coiled reinvention of "All Along the Watchtower" was a departure from both Dylan's relaxed original and Hendrix's famous cover version. But he also left some favorites intact, a generous and increasingly infrequent gesture from an icon who steadfastly refuses to become a nostalgia act. "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" was a familiar, feel-good ramble. And a faithful read of "Like a Rolling Stone," melody scaled back to an accusatory bark," was -- like the rest of this energized, engaged performance -- thoroughly gratifying.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At: Avalon, last night
Repeats tonight and tomorrow