Ghosts haunted the Belk Theater stage Sunday night during the concert by Bob Dylan and his band.
Shades of all the other authors who have won the Nobel Prize for literature, challenging him to sing the complex and poetic lyrics that earned him the award this year.
The spirit of Frank Sinatra, to whom Dylan has paid tribute in the albums “Shadows in the Night” and “Fallen Angels.” (The first album preceded Sinatra’s 100th birthday last December; the second followed it.)
And the shadows of all the other Bob Dylans we’ve seen: the folk troubador, the country singer, the electrified rocker, the born-again Christian, the performer of epic, enigmatic ballads, the ruminative guy whose musical tastes have embraced all eras and genres.
He could hardly have laid all these spirits to rest in a single set, especially one consisting of 18 songs and two encores. (That’s a standard set on this leg of the Never-Ending Tour.) Yet this whirl through a 55-year career showed an artist who has never stopped exploring his psyche or the musical world around him.
Every number was reorchestrated or reimagined. Lyrics varied from the printed texts. Familiar melodies darted in and out of songs, like silvery fish glimpsed through a dark river. He has rethought all of his material and expects you to think harder about it, too.
Not everyone at the Belk wanted to do that. Members of the sold-out crowd left throughout the 100-minute, intermissionless set, convinced that 1) Dylan wasn’t going to play a catalogue of his greatest hits and 2) The ones he did play wouldn’t sound like the beloved recordings. (Right on both counts.) Two ignorami were thrown out for attempting to record the performance on camera phones, despite multiple warnings to the audience.
But if you listened, you learned. You realized that “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” could be a song about patient acceptance of a love affair’s end, not a sarcastic rebuke to the other party. You could hear resignation in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” rather than bitterness. “Desolation Row” remains weirdly poetic but is a shade less cynical. (A note about the sound system: If you didn’t know the lyrics of Dylan’s rock numbers, you weren’t going to learn them Sunday night.)
Some artists refashion material because of physical limitations, or to have change for the sake of change. With Dylan, you have to believe he’s making choices. When he omits or alters lyrics of “Tangled Up in Blue,” he’s not forgetful; he’s purposeful.
He ran the gamut in this concert from early work (“Highway 61 Revisited”) through later stuff (“Pay in Blood”), from wry observations on love (“I Could Have Told You,” a nod to Sinatra) to social protest (the encore “Blowin’ in the Wind”).
That song, once righteously angry, has become an expression of melancholy. Fifty years later, the lyrics remind us how poorly America has lived up to its social contract: “How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?/How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?” Dylan seems tired of asking, but he asks anyway.
His voice sounds better than you might expect: The bottom is shot, but the top notes have reasonable resonance. He talks through songs more than he used to, declaiming lyrics like a Celtic bard. He plays piano through half the numbers – sometimes standing up, sometimes sitting for a bluesy beat – and solos on harmonica in the middle of “Tangled Up in Blue.”
His social skills, never honed, have been reduced to nothingness. He doesn’t introduce his five-piece band; he speaks not a word to the audience; he doesn’t acknowledge applause, except during final bows. Band members, Dylan included, perform in backlit shadows; you can barely see their faces most of the time.
When he sits at the piano in profile, backlights filtering through a fluffy corona of hair, he seems younger than his 75 years. When he totters slightly at the microphone after a vocal solo, he looks frail. Yet in the middle of every number, he’s fully connected to the music.
He and the band leave the stage after another Sinatra tribute, “Why Try to Change Me Now?” Maybe that’s a gentle hint to any audience that expects him to be their Bob Dylan. He is immutably and ever-changingly his own.
Bob Dylan set list
“Things Have Changed”
“Don't Think Twice, It's All Right”
“Highway 61 Revisited”
“It's All Over Now, Baby Blue”
“High Water (For Charley Patton)”
“I Could Have Told You” ***
“Early Roman Kings”
“Tangled Up in Blue”
“Lonesome Day Blues”
“Make You Feel My Love”
“Pay in Blood”
“Melancholy Mood” ***
“Soon After Midnight”
“All or Nothing at All” ***
“Long and Wasted Years”
“Blowin' in the Wind”
“Why Try to Change Me Now?” ***
(*** Covers of songs done by Frank Sinatra)