O n a good night, Bob Dylan sings as if he were gargling with lit cherry bombs. On a bad night, the 69-year-old sings as if he were gargling with lit cherry bombs while wearing a thick, furry Chewbacca mask.
On Thursday, in front of a few thousand faithful at the USF Sun Dome, it was a very good night — for all sorts of reasons.
Despite his taciturn rep and reluctance to smile — and, of course, his standoffish bullfrog croak — Dylan has aged into a genial, giving performer. Don't believe the cliche rips on him. Credit his age or the fact that he has nothing more to prove, but the Prickly Poet Laureate throws a likable, rousing gig nowadays.
I've seen Dylan perform seven or eight times, and this show was one of my flat-out faves. There have been times when I left a Bobfest scratching my dome at his crotchety, clipped approach; this time, I departed the intimate college venue picking air licks and humming the refrain of Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, one of 16 full-throttle burners he packed into his near-two-hour set.
What his local gig lacked in nuance — Zimmy now fancies himself a roadhouse rocker with his crooked finger on the volume and no need for acoustic quiet — it made up for with a crowd-goosing set list (Simple Twist of Fate is now my top Dylan song — wow) and musicianship that often raised the gooseflesh.
Plus despite his warped vocal, it was still projected high and clear in the mix. Not hiding that sucker. And although he's one seriously phlegmy dude, he was at least trying to enunciate, even turning such classics as Just Like a Woman, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and an absolutely gorgeous Tangled Up in Blue into spoken-word recitals.
Opening with the subtly scathing Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat from 1966's Blonde on Blonde, Dylan came out dressed in a wide-brimmed white hat, black jacket and what looked like track pants (presumably in case he had to run the 40-yard dash later).
If you were looking for the voice of protest, of rebellion, it's not really there anymore (although a wicked Ballad of a Thin Man was certainly aimed at someone). Now he wants to make you move, groove, hence his brilliant hiring of long, tall Charlie Sexton on lead guitar.
For a while, Dylan was doing entire shows perched behind the keyboards; now he's roaming the stage, maybe with a guitar, maybe blowing the mouth harp and making eyes on Lay Lady Lay. He wants to be a star again. And yet Dylan was also more than willing to let Sexton, the hunky '80s flash who has turned into a roots-rockin' indie star, share some of the spotlight as he launched deliciously greasy solos on Highway 61 Revisited and Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.
Recent shows have closed with encore takes of Jolene and Like a Rolling Stone, and we got both of those. But local fans should know they were gifted with a bonus song: After bidding adieu with his mates, the frisky troubadour changed his mind and brought 'em all back for a pulsing All Along the Watchtower. The kinder, gentler Bob Dylan: What's not to love?
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.