The sign in the front window of the Fox Theater indicated that “the artist” would prefer not to be photographed. Which makes sense, of course, since Bob Dylan has usually chosen to be depicted out of focus, if at all. But it’s too bad that there will be no photographs of Dylan’s concert last week in Oakland, because he was quite a sight to see. With his pencil-thin moustache, white wide-brimmed hat, and black suit with crimson red tuxedo stripes, he looked like Rhett Butler at a cotillion, or perhaps some US Calvary dandy from around the era of General George Custer.
Dylan also still prefers to remain musically out of focus, even though, in recent years, he has been making more of an effort to be approachable. No single evening with the man could ever possibly do justice to his massive catalog. And yet, with its broad survey of his entire career (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “Simple Twist of Fate”), and particular emphasis on his masterwork Blonde on Blonde and last album Modern Times, it was obvious that the man was trying hard to please the crowd. He succeeded mightily.
Not that the most protean of all living performers has ever stopped reinterpreting his old material. And while it’s no surprise that after four and a half decades Dylan and his tight five-piece band might reinvent the folky “Masters of War” as an angry rock dirge, his complete transformation of 2006’s “Thunder on the Mountain” as a Chuck Berry-style rave-up was breathtaking, if not unexpected.
Yes, he’s our greatest living artist, songwriter, and bluesman — sorry B.B. — but his show at the Fox also brought home what a damn fine singer he is. Conventional wisdom merely tolerates his voice and harmonica skills, but in fact, Dylan’s pacing and delivery is equal in skill to that of Frank Sinatra, the acknowledged master of the art. On “Just Like a Woman,” he paused long enough before each utterance of the title phrase to rap out a harmony vocal atop the crowd’s enthusiastic and entirely unsolicited chorus. And on “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” he completely reworked his delivery of the chorus upon each successive repetition.
But it was only on “Ballad Of a Thin Man,” for me the highlight of the evening, that Dylan allowed the sound man to make his vocal the focus of the mix. The result was the best example of his vocal genius, and perhaps the night’s one generally faithful rendition of a song. But so as not to allow the audience to get too good a fix on him, the lighting was dark and expressive, drawing attention not to the singer but rather his enlarged shadow.