The opening song Sunday night before a sold-out crowd at the Music Hall was “Things Have Changed.”
That isn’t the first or most famous song Bob Dylan has written about how times are changing. But it sufficed as a theme to Sunday’s show, which portrayed Dylan as a performer engaged with his band and audience and in touch with his own music.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when Dylan concerts became exercises in endurance, in tolerating the drastic rearrangements of his songs and his voice, which, at the time, wasn’t doing his songs any favors.
But things have changed. Sunday’s show was a two-hour spectacle on a few levels. It showcased a stellar band supporting one of popular music’s most revered and decorated songwriters. And it gave Dylan a platform to present himself as an entertainer, which he can be, if he makes a few concessions. Sunday night, he did that.
Never miss a local story.
All five members of his band deserve their own introductions because they fortified every song: Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitars; Tony Garnier on bass; George Receli on drums; and Donnie Herron, of BR5-49 fame, on steel guitar, fiddle and banjo.
The stage was so dimly lit, it was difficult at times to visually discern who was doing what, but through most of the 20-song set, Sexton and Herron were the stars, adding leads and fills that embellished and embroidered the band’s luxurious, organic sound.
Dylan wore a wide-brimmed hat, a knee-length coat and pants with a stripe down the outer legs and some kind of cravat (or so it appeared). Throughout the show, he sounded and appeared engaged with band and his music.
He played piano and blues harp during several songs. During others, he stood at the microphone and sang. A couple of times during the instrumentals, he stepped away from the mic, put his left hand on his hip and swayed gently and briefly — about as animated as he gets.
The set list focused heavily on his more recent albums, but he performed two numbers from his early catalog: “She Belongs to Me,” the second song of the show, and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the first of two encores. Between those he visited the “Blood on the Tracks” album twice: “Tangled Up in Blue” and, after the 20-minute intermission, “Simple Twist of Fate.”
All four of those songs were rearranged, but not deranged or derailed almost beyond recognition, as has been the case in previous shows: Tempos were slowed; time signatures were altered; or melodies were recast. But the songs sustained their original spirits.
Dylan still sings with a gravelly growl and often veers into sing-speak, but he also showed fidelity to melody, especially during the breathtaking “Autumn Leaves,” one of several highlights, and “Stay With Me,” his closer. Both are tracks on “Shadows in the Night,” his homage to songs recorded by Frank Sinatra. He treated both with respect, singing each straightforwardly.
The audience of about 2,500 spanned a few generations, and it showered him with a mix of adoration and appreciation, cheering loudly, a few times during songs, as when he sang “Kansas City” in the first verse of “High Water (For Charley Patton).”
Like every song on the set list, that one showcased his band’s knack for shifting fluidly among several flavors of Americana. “Working Man’s Blues No. 2” was delivered as an electric-folk hymn; “Duquesne Whistle” bore a country-swing vibe; “Waiting for You” was cast as a country waltz; “Early Roman Kings” tapped into the Delta blues; “Scarlet Town,” featuring Herron on banjo, elicited a gothic country flavor, akin to the sound of bands like 16 Horsepower.
Love was the topic of many of his songs, including “Spirit on the Water,” which was infused with a jazzy, almost show-tune vibe. Dylan is singing to a woman who is always on his mind, trying to persuade her to give him another chance, promising her “a whoppin’ good time.” Toward the end, he sings defiantly: “You think, I’m over the hill / Think I’m past my prime,” and it aroused a reaction from some in the crowd.
Dylan will turn 74 this month, but Sunday night instead of on the decline, he seemed rekindled, in the midst of another prime, intent on mounting other summits.
Things Have Changed; She Belongs to Me; Beyond Here Lies Nothin’; Working Man’s Blues No. 2; Duquesne Whistle; Waiting for You; Pay in Blood; Love Sick; Tangled Up in Blue; Love Sick. Intermission; High Water (For Charley Patton); Simple Twist of Fate; Early Roman Kings; Forgetful Heart; Spirit on the Water; Scarlet Town; Soon After Midnight; Long and Wasted Years; Autumn Leaves. Encore: Blowin’ in the Wind; Stay With Me.