There are certain things to know about walking into a Bob Dylan performance in 2011. First, of course, is that voice. The 70-year-old legend's once-iconic snarl has been ravaged and reduced to something resembling a cranky carnival barker on a good night, a Muppet with a serious respiratory infection on a bad night. Songs are rendered almost unrecognizable from their original versions, most of them transformed into bluesy shuffles with Dylan twisting vocal melodies and delivering lyrics like they are Catskills punchlines. And forget about personal interaction — if he says anything to the audience beyond "thank you" and the names of his bandmates, it qualifies as an all-out gabfest.
A Dylan concert hangs in a weird nostalgia purgatory where classic moments are there but reflected through a funhouse mirror. This tactic has earned Dylan plenty of praise over the course of his Neverending Tour, now 23 years and counting, which made its way to Merriweather Post Pavilion on Tuesday night. He doesn't roll out the hits. He reinterprets and reinvents then. Some might argue he ruins them.
So what's the draw? For some it's a bucket list thing. For others, it's religion. In both cases, it's mostly just to share a moment with the most important figure in 20th century pop music. At this point Dylan concerts are perhaps most remarkable for their regularity — Tuesday's show was Dylan's eighth in the area in just the last five years. And like almost all of those, it was far from cathartic. Still, there is something undeniably comforting about seeing someone of his stature continue an endless and uncompromising musical journey.
The most pleasant development over the last two years of Dylan shows is that he's no longer glued to the area behind his keyboard. That's been his instrument of choice for much of the past decade and is where he spent half of Tuesday's 90-minute set. Standing stage left, with his back to a sizable portion of the audience, he plinked away as his reliably-perfect five-piece backing band carried songs such as "Mississippi" or "Thunder On the Mountain."
But Dylan — dressed in his usual grandpa cowboy look of black suit with red stripes and a white Stetson hat — is increasingly growing back into the role of frontman. For five songs he stood at the center of the stage and simply sang. He didn't exactly bounce around but certain lines were punctuated with an arm shake and he leaned into those harmonica solos that were often as grating as his singing. That gravelly voice doesn't suit every song well but added an extra feeling of weariness to the stormy "Cold Irons Bound," certainly one of the best songs anyone's ever written 35 years into their career.
On "Beyond Here Lies Nothing" and "Simple Twist of Fate" he strapped on an electric guitar and slashed away with a surprising dexterity while still deferring to Charlie Sexton, the hotshot player to his right.
The main set ended with "Ballad of a Thin Man," one of Dylan's most scathing songs in a catalogue overflowing with them. There was extra bite to this version as Dylan lingered on the repeated rhymes, not so much growling the words as hacking them up. An echo on his vocals was a simple but surprising effect and made the sinister song feel even more claustrophobic.
Near the end of the song came one of the small moments that keep fans coming back every year, even more than a sense of duty. That broad white hat kept most of Dylan's face hidden in shadow, but as the creepy echo rang through the pavilion you could see his lips curl up. And it wasn't a smirk — it was a smile.