I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The concert’s promotional artwork (especially those fonts) and the previous two albums, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, were strong clues that I was going to be seeing a Bob Dylan infected by the Great American Songbook.

Dylan concert promo

So yes, we got “Melancholy Mood” and “Autumn Leaves” and “The September of My Years” with Bob crooning into a big microphone and holding its stand at a jaunty angle. But that’s not what I disliked about the concert. In fact, those songs were done pretty well, and Dylan’s voice sounded better than any previous concert I’ve been to. It was what he did to his own songs that was frustrating.

No one in his right mind goes to a Dylan concert expecting to hear his classics played or sung the way they were done originally. But the treatment they’re given is always interesting and usually fun. Not this time. Apart from “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” the Dylan songs suffered from arrangements that were, I guess, meant to match the style of the non-Dylan songs. Under these conditions, you can’t expect the songs to rock, but you can expect them to swing. And the band just didn’t swing.

There was a sameness to Charlie Sexton’s guitar work throughout the night. Despite changing instruments several times, his sound was constrained and repetitive. But when a band doesn’t swing, it’s mainly because of the rhythm section. These are talented musicians who can play in any style, so if they didn’t find a groove it must have been because Bob didn’t want them to.

As a result, he lost the audience. Many left early and those who hung in there stayed glued to their seats until the encores. Can you imagine a Dylan audience not standing to “Tangled Up in Blue”?

The optimist in me notes that Dylan never sticks with anything for long, and after two albums of standards he may be ready for the next thing. I hope he comes back to the notion that that it’s his songs, and the blues and country/folk they came out of, that are truly the Great American Songbook and gives them the treatment they deserve.