The opening number of Bob Dylan’s set at Starlight Theatre on Tuesday night was “Things Have Changed,” a song that appeared on the soundtrack of the movie “Wonder Boys,” released in the year 2000.
In the intervening 16 years, things have changed for Dylan too. He turned 75 in May, and it appears that more than ever, Dylan is having a good time playing the music he wants to play with the band he wants to play with.
Tuesday’s show, which lasted nearly two hours, including an intermission, wasn’t one for the diehards hoping for a hailstorm of classics and hits. He was well into the first set before he delivered one of those — a reconfigured, remetered, jangly guitar version of “Tangled Up In Blue.” He played some wailing blues harp on that one, a throwback to his early days.
Most of the set list bounced around from songs on latter-day albums, like “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” to songs like “Melancholy Mood” from his most recent album, “Fallen Angels,” another collection of classic American songs, released in May. On most of those numbers, Dylan, dressed in a white brimmed hat, a white sports coat, white shoes and black pants with a white stripe up the outside seam, stood and crooned at a microphone stand.
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He was backed by a stellar five-piece band led by lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Receli. Herron added plenty of luster throughout the show. His pedal-steel intros and fills were transcendent on songs like “What’ll I Do” and “I Could Have Told You.” He embroidered “High Water (For Charley Patton)” with some rollicking banjo and the remodeled version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” with some spicy fiddle.
Dylan showed off some nifty piano runs and fills through out the show, like during “Beyond Here Lies Nothing’” and “Duquesne Whistle,” a swinging jazz/blues number girded by Garnier’s buoyant stand-up bass licks.
His covers of songs like “I’m A Fool To Want You” were delivered with a charming earnestness and a succinctness and vocal articulation that is often missing from Dylan’s original material, as if he is showing more respect for the works of Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra than his own. But lately, including his show at the Music Hall in May 2015, he has retreated from the days when he seemed to bark, growl and sputter through his shows, as if disfiguring his own songs were the point. These days, at the very least, he insinuates melody and sings articulately.
The stage had a retro feel. A large curtain spanned the area behind the band and was illuminated by a small constellation of tungsten lights that glowed like candles.
Other highlights: “Spirit On The Water,” which included some slick, bluesy guitar work from Sexton, as did “Melancholy Mood.” He closed with the country-fied version of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” then “Love Sick,” from his stellar “Time Out Of Mind” album, now almost 20 years old. He rearranged and refashioned that one too into something grittier and grimier. Not because he needed to, but because that’s who he has always been: one who typically expresses no sticky sentiment for the past, although this evening he showed it the respect it deserved.
Mavis Staples: She opened the evening with a lively but shortened version of the set she played at the Kauffman Center in March. It included “Take Us Back,” the Staple Family classic “I’ll Take You There,” “You Are Not Alone” and a memorable cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.”
Things Have Changed, She Belongs To Me, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, What’ll I Do, Pay In Blood, Melancholy Mood, Duquesne Whistle, I’m A Fool To Want You, Tangled Up In Blue. Intermission. High Water (For Charley Patton), Why Try To Change Me Now, Early Roman Kings, I Could Have Told You, Spirit On The Water, Scarlet Town, All Or Nothing At All, Long And Wasted Years, Autumn Leaves. Encore: Blowin’ In The Wind, Love Sick