At Toronto’s Massey Hall on Friday, Bob Dylan and his band presented 18 songs, half of them off the 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Save for 1979′s Gotta Serve Somebody, no hits were performed. There were so many deep cuts, the set list could have been covered in blood.
Gotta serve somebody? Dylan, at 82, has reconsidered.
Performing the second of two sold-out shows, he played a baby grand piano at the centre of the stage with his five accompanists semi-circled behind him. His playing was bluesy; thick notes rolled and rumbled. As a pianist, Dylan is devoted more to the woogie than the boogie.
No one has ever called his voice pleasant. And while Dylan’s tone today is a tubercular bark, his delivery is capable and his phrasing precise. Enunciation isn’t his bag, though. David Byrne once said the better a singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying. But what if we cannot make out the words?
Sometimes he stood – Jerry Lee Lewis style but without the calisthenics. Just as often he sat. Often he was up and down within the same song. Dylan has had many periods in his career. Perhaps we can call this era his sciatica years.
Dylan long ago seemingly took a vow of silence. His audience respected his between-song muteness by keeping their mouths shut, too. No song requests were shouted; no “We love you, Bob” expressions were heard. They clapped enthusiastically.
He did introduce the band: Bob Britt and Doug Lancio, guitars; Tony Garnier, bass; Donnie Herron, fiddle, electric mandolin and pedal steel guitar; Jerry Pentecost, drums. Their playing was professional and tasteful. The guitarists clearly were not being paid by the note.
Herron took out his fiddle for an acoustic-based When I Paint My Masterpiece, a song Dylan last played in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. At Massey, there were no thunderclaps. This wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll show, it was mid-tempo blues and country rock with a gentlemanly swing – a roadhouse symphony.
Dressed all in black (like his band), Dylan sang, “Black rider, black rider all dressed in black,” on the dramatic ballad Black Rider. On I Contain Multitudes, he sang, “I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds.” Between numbers, when he wasn’t wearing his black fedora, he occasionally fussed with his fluffy hair.
There was a rehearsed off-the-cuff quality to the arrangements. Intros were hesitant – as if Dylan was merely making suggestions. Outros were short, elegant collapses.
The native Minnesotan has been spotlighting local artists and city-specific songs on his current tour: Chuck Berry music in St. Louis, blues in Chicago, John Mellencamp’s Longest Days in Indianapolis and Leiber and Stoller’s Kansas City in that Missouri city. He did not oblige the Torontonians in that way. Instead, his cover tunes were the Grateful Dead’s Stella Blue and Brokedown Palace, on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
A concert like this is a simple exchange of performance by the artist and unabashed admiration and affection from the audience. Dylan at times allowed himself small smiles; the grins from the crowd (including musicians Jim Cuddy, Tom Wilson and Kevin Drew) were much broader.
These were fans, not tourists. They had not come for the man who used to sing, “The line, it is drawn; the curse, it is cast/ the slow one now will later be fast.” That Dylan is gone, perhaps only existing in the time that virtuous thought had occurred to him in the first place. On stage he is a dutiful singer and player.
There was no encore after the show-closing Every Grain of Sand: “Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Dylan walked away from his piano and faced the crowd, one hand on a microphone stand for support. His face was expressionless and his body was still as he received his applause. He had given a performance and nothing more – if not a masterpiece, a good memory.