Review: Bob Dylan leaves an enigmatic impression at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

What's it like to review the iconic singer-songwriter without taking a single note?
In this Jan. 12, 2012 file photo, Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
In this Jan. 12, 2012 file photo, Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
Published Oct. 21, 2018

I didn't take a single note at Bob Dylan's concert Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Never uncapped my pen. Didn't even bring a notebook.

Dylan, it seems fair to say, no longer wishes to be documented, or at least feels he's been documented well enough already. Too much has been written of what he says and doesn't say, what he plays and doesn't play. He does not allow photographers or credential the media at his concerts. Cell phone usage is strictly verboten.

I'd scribbled plenty of notes during the Nobel laureate's last two shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall, in 2015 and 2016 – catch up here and here – but convention only gets you so far with an enigma like Dylan. This time, I wanted to try something more impressionistic. I wanted to spend two hours in a room with one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and see what stuck with me when I left.

At 77, Dylan has, once again, tweaked the path his legacy is taking. The cowpoke-crooner shtick he's chased most of this century has evolved into more of a Southwestern bar-band sensibility, a bunch of after-midnight cats just in it for the comfort of the gig. A band in the background of a David Lynch movie, basically, which is an incredibly strange and specific thing for a band to want to be. Certainly, a band without Dylan at the center would have a hard time getting away with charging up to $585 a ticket for it.

But if this is Dylan's endgame, he's putting in the work to see it through. He is still Bob Dylan, so he growled and groaned and honked as the words wheezed out of him like wind from a leaky balloon. But in these arrangements, with the band playing loose blues and swing and unexpected threads of '60s surf-pop behind him, he just sounded more like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. Such company, no respectable man would turn down.

And he moves! Yes, Bob Dylan still moves. He occasionally scuttled out from behind his piano and just sang, hand on hip, jutting his hobbity body into an inkblot of angles and protrusions. Late in the night, he actually shimmied out for a bow with the teensiest of jigs, tugging at his lapels with a hint of winky cheek.

The band tried to mask every recognizable song with some sort of jazz or country-juju or boozy boogie-woogie makeover. But as soon as fans figured it out, they clapped and cheered and at some points stood at the end. Unlike other recent Clearwater setlists, this one wasn't as hitched to Dylan's  newer material. Close to half the songs came from 1975's Blood on the Tracks or earlier, including all-time cuts like Highway 61 Revisited; It Ain't Me, Babe; Don't Think Twice, It's Alright; and Blowin' in the Wind.

And on Like a Rolling Stone – only the greatest song of all time, according to (*squints at notes*) um, Rolling Stone – the arrangement was hopeful, even beautiful, with Dylan singing over a hushed, bowed bass in the bridge, a flutter of guitars in the background. Here, just briefly, was a moment of warmth and wonder that made the whole eccentric affair seem worthwhile, a sensation that any casual Dylan fan could still love him live, however else they might feel about his surrealist saloon-singer fantasies.

There is a thrill simply in getting in the door to see Dylan. He's living history, and for that reason he's worth what you can pay to see him. But as for the experience that ticket buys you, it helps to keep your eyes and ears open. You may not want to go where Dylan wants to take you. You might hear a reimagined version of Like a Rolling Stone or Blowin' in the Wind and leave scratching your head.

Or you might have them stuck in your head hours later, like me. You'll have to take my word for it, since I have no notes to prove it. All I have is an impression, brushed in big, bleary strokes from my seat near the back, of the fellow up there still shuffling around his own quixotic spotlight. He'd probably prefer it that way. I think maybe I do, too.

— Jay Cridlin