The theatre is dark, but Reno dark, which means it’s permeated with the vague threat of cheap neon. The sound kicks in – a swell of sweeping orchestration, luridly grandiose, like a carmelized medley of the worst of “Oklahoma!” Then the announcer booms with a string of superlatives that would inflate the Hindenberg – legend, genius, comeback kid of astonishing new breadth and direction. The yellow lights pop to waking, and the band is ready. There is no opening act. Who needs one?
This is Bob Dylan.
And he’s – well, he’s up there somewhere. In a convex arc of grey suits and white Stratocasters, his location is as indecipherable as his voice. As “Maggie’s Farm” rolls on, countrified within an inch of its life, he is identified as the slight man at the keyboard – the one with his immaculately pressed back facing half the audience. It’s a posture he will not change once, not for the duration of the April 1st show. He mutters into the microphone, landing about half the words in a monotonous drawl. “They say – you slave … bored,” he ponders.
This is Bob Dylan? Man, I feel older just watching him. He’s so different from the precocious poet of his folk albums, probably because one of them never had to age. But the Dylan at Reno Events Center left Neverland ages ago; he seems an exhausted existence away from the farsighted twentysomething with dirty boots and fury for masters of war. (Though by contrast, Maggie’s Ma has a renewed vigil for deception – according to the newly modified lyrics, she is now ambitiously claiming to be 24.)
So this new Dylan – I’m a foreigner to him, as is anyone who grew up two generations too late for the Summer of Love. His records linger, still provocative and deeply affecting to the point that you feel it, physically, in your chest – the roar of that wave, still coming to drown the world. But the Dylan performing today in his white cowboy hat isn’t riding it; instead, as illustrated laboriously in Reno, he now settles for a two-hour jamboree of newer country material without a single ’60s classic mercilessly interspersed. Also, he never speaks or picks up a guitar, either acoustic or (gasp!) electric.
It’s a rebellious set of standards; in all, Dylan only performs three of his early classics in the two-hour concert (“Maggie’s Farm” and, for an encore, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower”). The middle songs – most tracks taken from 2001’s “Love and Theft” – melt together diaphanously in a twangy haze of his flat mid-range and the technically excellent musicianship: precise arpeggios, churning stand-up bass, even the inexplicably cool banjo solo and Dylan’s whole-note organ effect.
Who cares? It’s a blip compared to what he could be giving the audience, and what prevents him from giving a substantial and inspiring performance. And it’s not like he doesn’t know all this. On the rare occasion he glimpses out into the bright lights and overflowing crowd, he must see the euphoria that crosses every face during “Like a Rolling Stone” – the moment he offers is uplifting, what people came to commune with. Maybe he’s simply too tired to stay larger than life, but so is the audience – a percentage leave
before the show is half over. Other ticketholders remain to offer lukewarm applause.
But when the band exits, and the lights remain dimmed in obvious acknowledgement of the encore to come, the crowd starts screaming. Their enthusiasm is back. That hopefulness, maybe stronger than anything that night, is reassuring – it recalls that idealistic ’60s dynamic, the one so many of us posthumously crave and Dylan represents whether he likes it or not. And perhaps he secretly does because, following that reception, he returns with two long-awaited classics and leaves the audience blissful.
Maybe no one can roll forever; they need to take roots. But in a lengthy and sprawling admission that lent both repetition and total bliss, Dylan still found his greatest success in acknowledging his past, and the importance that it holds. He still suggests what we can be, even if we weren’t around for the first curtain; it’s not the worst thing he can admit. He could be more, but he still is worth wanting – forever relevant, but not forever young.