Things have changed since Bob Dylan first played the Beacon Theatre in 1989.
Those four shows were full of surprises. The set lists varied wildly. Dylan did a few solo acoustic numbers. And G.E. Smith fronted a three-piece band that delivered tight, driving guitar rock.
On the last night, while playing harmonica during “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Dylan hopped off stage and walked up the aisle. But then he just kept going, out an exit and into the Manhattan night. Rumor has it that he got on his bicycle and rode away.
Those shows took place just a year into the so-called Never Ending Tour. When Dylan takes the stage at the historic Beacon on Monday, kicking off a five-night residency, the tour hits its 2,899th stop (according to Dylan documenter Olof Björner). And come April, he’ll be back on the road, headin’ for another joint.
Dylan turned 76 in May and, eternal circle of touring not withstanding, he is simply a different artist now. These days he rarely plays the harmonica or the guitar. He tinkles a keyboard but mostly defers to the five versatile musicians behind him, led by Charlie Sexton. And he has a fixed set list. The first 23 shows on this leg of the tour were virtually identical, and similar to those of the past few years.
The current set draws heavily on later work, with just six of 20 songs written before his 1997 masterpiece “Time Out of Mind.”
The recent studio albums exploring Frank Sinatra standards contribute four songs. And while no one is going to mistake him for Ol’ Blue Eyes, Dylan’s crooning is lovely, his lighthearted considerations contrasting clear, delicate phrasing with a grizzled lower register.
He also sings four tracks from 2012’s “Tempest,” his most recent original studio album. These songs aren’t as familiar to many fans of “Blonde on Blonde” or “Blood on the Tracks,” but lyrically they are the equal of any of the early gems. Dylan loves snarling his way through the Muddy Waters-sounding “Early Roman Kings” so much that he has sung it 379 times in the five years since it debuted.
He does perform five songs from the ’60s each night, including a fiddle-backed “Blowin’ in the Wind” imbued with almost sunny optimism.
The highlight for fans of the old days has to be “Desolation Row.” This is not the pensive, 13-minute poetry of May 1966 when Dylan was at his folk-god acme, however. He is just having fun, luxuriating in Cinderella, Dr. Filth and the Phantom of the Opera. He omits three verses, but the seven he sings are word-perfect.
As for the voice, yes, he occasionally mumbles a phrase. He has a gravelly tone but can also float a gorgeous line, seemingly at will. And he still puts his all into every show, as he has since 1961 at the Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street.
So is Dylan worth it at this point, even if there probably won’t be any surprises? (Probably being the key word, because nothing is for certain.)
Absolutely. Would you skip the Coliseum in Rome just because its streets are filled with rubble? Bob Dylan is a colossus. And for five nights, he will be singing just for you his lifelong ballad of a thin man.