Review: Bob Dylan skips Nobel talk, lets his music speak for him at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

Bob Dylan, shown here in January 2012.
Bob Dylan, shown here in January 2012.
Published Nov. 20, 2016

A nod. That's about all we got from Bob Dylan, and it came at the very end of his sold-out concert Saturday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

No words. No waves. No bows. A nod, and a small one at that.

And that's about all we should have expected. Ever since Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in October, he's has kept a deliberate, defiant distance from the rest of the world, his fans very much included.

There is joy in seeing Robert Allen Zimmerman live at 75, but it comes only on his terms, and if you want a taste of it, you must check your expectations at the door. The recalcitrant icon will not talk about the Nobel Prize, or pay tribute to Leonard Cohen or Leon Russell, or sing the songs that made him famous in any recognizable fashion.

He will nod. You will like it. And if you don't, well, the door is over there.

Ambling onstage in dim amber lighting and a cream wide-brimmed hat, Dylan had some pep in his step from the get-go, shuffling a bit as he rocked with a mic stand on the bouncing, bluesy Things Have Changed. Then, cheers of recognition greeted two early all-timers, the joyful, sprightly Don't Think Twice, It's All Right and a revved-up Highway 61 Revisited, and for a second it seemed like Dylan might really dig deep and give us all a bit more classic material.

Except, yeah, that clearly was never going to happen. Dylan would play older songs like Blowin' in the Wind and Simple Twist of Fate, but with his scattershot delivery they would sound different – the former, sunny and blissful and swinging and free; the latter, tinged with some of Dylan's best and jazziest piano work on the night. His relationship epic Tangled Up in Blue seemed to come from a happy place, pressing ahead to a bright, insistent, forward-leaning beat.

Dylan spent at least half the set sitting, and at certain points standing, behind a grand piano, his hat doffed and upturned like he was playing for tips at the bar. If you sat close enough to see his fingers on the ivories, you saw that he played with passion and intensity, putting a bossa nova spin on Beyond Here Lies Nothin' and a little boogie-woogie backbone behind an upbeat Desolation Row. He tooted on a harmonica a couple of times, too, yet another reminder of the coffeehouse folkie he once was.

His bandmates watched him closely, looking for cues or clues or something to guide them from measure to measure, but the truth is this is now a well-oiled machine, with a standard setlist polished night after night on the road. Dylan may be quixotic, but he's still a professional touring musician, one who's got racks of $100 hoodies to move in the lobby. And it very much sounds like he cares how he sounds.

No songs plodded or dripped with sentimentality, not even plaintive standards crooned in the style of a lonesome cowpoke lullaby. If anything, the setlist had some true bite, as the band stomped through Pay In Blood, scooted through a sprightly Duquesne Whistle, plowed through High Water (for Charley Patton) and knocked out some mighty Muddy Waters riffs on Early Roman Kings. Dylan himself often rocked and swayed to the music, even once pumping his fist and sweeping his arms out to the band. If you squinted, you might even have noticed a bead of sweat on his cheek.

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Without fail, though, he always kept the audience at arm's length, which made it tough for them to embrace him. He spent half the set cradling one mic stand behind a row of three others, ensuring that plenty of people in the lowers rows almost never got a view that wasn't partially blocked. It's telling that after he left the stage following Autumn Leaves, the whole house cheered for an encore – but at least half of them stayed in their seats. Standing ovations are the birthright of no man, not even the greatest songwriter who ever lived. You have to earn them, and Dylan, until he took his final bows, did not.

But, again, what does Bob Dylan care what his audience thinks? The concert was orchestrated in such a way that he never had to interact with another living soul, not even accidentally. Between songs, the stage lights went dark so Dylan could turn away and recede into the shadows. His band noodled on their instruments as if tuning for the next song, eliminating the possibility of any silence-breaking banter.

During one rare, rare moment of quietude, a woman in the crowd -- and you knew this was coming -- shouted: "Congratulations on your Nobel Prize!"

The words glanced off Dylan, if he even heard them at all. Instead he rolled on to the next song, the perfectly titled I Could Have Told You.

Could have told us what? Well, that's exactly the point, isn't it? Dylan could have told us a lot of things over the years, but he hasn't, and it's pretty clear he never will. If we're lucky, a nod is all we'll get.

-- Jay Cridlin