Review: Bob Dylan swings through timeless, intimate set at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

Bob Dylan, shown here in a file photo, performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall on April 22, 2015.
Bob Dylan, shown here in a file photo, performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall on April 22, 2015.
Published April 23, 2015

It is tempting to think of Bob Dylan as a priceless American artifact, an antiquity to be preserved behind crystal-clear, smudge-proof glass. Look, there he is, the voice of a generation, the man who wrote Blowin' In the Wind! Stand behind the rope! No flash photography allowed!

But the thing about priceless antiquities is that no one ever takes them out of the cupboard to play. And Dylan, who brought his Never Ending Tour to Ruth Eckerd Hall Wednesday night, still wants to play. Just watch him up there, tilting his mic stand, shuffling his feet, sneaking little grins, striking funny poses and finger-gunning his bandmates. Pew pew!

If Dylan wants to embrace his inner cowboy lounge lizard – and judging from his set's emphasis on traditional country, swing and the blues, he does – this is the way to go about it. This was his most intimate local concert in many years – tickets, which went for up to $300 a head, sold out long ago – and the scaled-down setting could not have been more welcome.

The stage had a timeless, theatrical feel, with gorgeous décor and warm amber lighting that felt lifted from the '40s or '50s. Most importantly, it sounded terrific – and as anyone who's seen Dylan in the past decade can attest, that is no small miracle. We all know that his voice, as he approaches age 74, is more a croak than a croon, and those industrial amps at the arenas and amphitheaters he typically plays do him no favors at all. At Ruth Eckerd Hall, however, you could hear what you've been missing all these years. It's still the same gutteral honk, but at least here it was front and center in the mix, clear and crisp and not drowned out by echoes.

Wearing snazzy shoes, a vintage suit and the hat of a traveler, Dylan spoke only once, thanking the crowd and introducing an intermission at the end of his first set. Instead, he spent the set meandering from a mic at center stage to a piano to his left, where his fingers rolled through juke-joint jazz like Duquesne Whistle, the snaky Beyond Here Lies Nothin' and the starry-eyed lullaby Waiting For You.

This was decidedly not a night for the classics; of the 19 songs Dylan played, all but five were from this century. But he did occasionally break out a Village-vintage harmonica, including on a couple of tunes from 1975's Blood on the Tracks – the lovely Simple Twist of Fate and Tangled Up In Blue, which got its usual live lyrical makeover, giving the many Dylanologists in the crowd something to mull over during intermission.

Surprisingly, given the crooner-like panache he toyed with all night behind the mic, he played but one song from his new Frank Sinatra tribute, Shadows In the NightStay With Me, as a tidy, lovely benediction to the encore.

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Dylan never once picked up a guitar, and he didn't need to, thanks to his expert backing band. Behind him was Charlie Sexton, fresh off of a small role in Boyhood and twanging out a little blues-hall juju on Early Roman Kings; Stu Kimball, strumming through the rolling, whimsical Things Have Changed; and Donnie Herron, working his pedal steel's heartstrings on the prairie ballads Workingman's Blues #2 and Soon After Midnight.

As for Dylan's own instrument – his voice -- well … you know. There are a lot of ways to sing. Some people sing cleanly, melodically and in perfect sync with the beat. Some people sing like Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is one of those people.

But there are times, in a venue as acoustically sound as Ruth Eckerd Hall, when Dylan's voice still gets the job done. It's kind of like a rusty old knife only he knows how to twist, and sometimes he can still nick you near your heart. The swaying, major-key arrangement he chose for the encore's Blowin' In the Wind was, fittingly, as gentle and free as a dandelion tuft; and the bright, sparkling and hopeful Spirit On the Water was like a smile set to song.

This is the Dylan the modern world should preserve in its memory – the one who actually looks and sounds happy up there, playing the singin' cowpoke as his band imbues his songs with winsome Western wonder. He's out there now for everyone to see. Don't be afraid to look close.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*