The bad news is, Dylan's voice is totally shot. He's got a range of about three notes, and he can't hit any of them. When he opened his show at Red Rocks last evening with a desultory version of "Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35," mumbling out rushed lyrics to one of his lesser hits, it looked like we were in for a long night.
But there's always the songs. My goodness, the man has a catalog, and he was pulling out songs all night that seemed obvious in retrospect, classics even, but that I never would have predicted: "When I Paint My Masterpiece"! "Watching the River Flow"! "Every Grain of Sand"! "Friend of the Devil" - wait, that isn't even a Dylan song, but the jam-band-happy Red Rocks crowd sure greeted it with enthusiasm. I was a little surprised he never got around to "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar."
And after a while, as Dylan found a usable voice, and the band locked in tastefully and elegantly, not so much steamrollering the audience as - to paraphrase Roger Angell on getting beat by the 1998 Yankees - running them over with a BMW, it all became kind of great. The turning point was a Band-like take on "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," with Dylan playing every lyric for maximum comic effect - "You say you love and you're thinking of me, but you know you could be wrong," and you could almost hear the Nicholson-like raised eyebrow at the end of the line. From then on, it seemed as if every other line was a laugh line; I had never quite caught on to that one from "Cry a While," "Well, you bet on a horse and it ran the wrong way," but I LOLed at it last night. "Nettie Moore," somewhat trudging on Modern Times, almost brought the house down: "I think the rain has stopped" got an appreciative response following the ten-minute rainstorm that immediately preceded Dylan's set, but the biggest roar came for "They say whisky'll kill you, but I don't think it will."
But what to do about that voice? When he reached Dylan's age, Leonard Cohen started having a girl singer double his vocals, but Dylan may be too idiosyncratic on his phrasing (and his lyrics - there were whole new verses for "When I Paint My Masterpiece," which may or may not have been off the dome) for that to work. And the last time Dylan carried around background singers, he ended up marrying one, and look how well that turned out. Last night, no one on the stage other than Bob sang a note, and even for Bob, it's arguable.
He didn't say a word to the crowd, either, until the encore, when he introduced the band. I guess it was an encore; after "Masters of War," the stage went dark as it had done several times earlier, and only the minutes-long wait told us the first act had ended. He came back after a bit and tore through "Thunder on the Mountain," then played a jaunty "Blowin' in the Wind," with Dylan's carnival-barker voice backed by roller-rink organ and fiddle, and it occurred to me that that song is almost as old as Dylan himself. And if you're counting, that means he did two songs from Freewheelin'. Of his albums from the previous century, only Blonde on Blonde got a similar courtesy. Self-Portrait was shut out.
Man, was it good. I wish I was going back tonight.