Now essentially an old bluesman, Bob Dylan continues his habit in recent years of leaning on the organ and harmonica during live performances. But in turning away from the guitar, he's taken a greater role in his band's sound.
As the Never Ending Tour made its fourth Tucson stop in the last decade, the now 70-year-old Dylan delivered a 16-song set drawing broadly from his career. The newest studio album, Together Through Life, and 1965's classic Highway 61 Revisited were the most represented albums, with three songs each. Remarkably, Dylan repeated only two songs from his last local performance, a 2007 AVA show that was also far superior to his Tucson Convention Center stop in 2006.
Starting with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," his vocals were clear and strong throughout, but what shined most was his nimble organ playing. When Dylan first brought the organ back to his live show, his style was more subdued, less striking in the band's mix. Now, it's a featured dimension of the band's sound and plays perfectly off Charlie Sexton's lead guitar.
Similarly strong—and more prevalent than in recent years—was Dylan's harmonica, which he played on roughly half the songs, often lacing multiple harp passages into a single song. He played guitar on just one song, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'."
His stage presence more animated without a guitar, Dylan spent the night making little gestures and poses. They're not details that can be detected from the lawn, but those seated close to the stage were treated to plenty of little moves from Dylan, wearing a black cowboy suit with red piping.
With lightning flashing in the southwest distance, Dylan played a jumpy blues version of "The Levee's Gonna Break," with an excellent call-and-response outro jam between Dylan's organ and Sexton's guitar.
Still updating and shifting his old classics, Dylan meshed both first- and third-person lyrics into his narrative "Tangled Up in Blue," and rearranged "Visions of Johanna" around his organ playing.
To close the set, with the stage lights set low for an interrogation effect and his looming shadow tall on the curtain at the back of the stage, Dylan played a version of "Ballad of a Thin Man" dripping with menace, as accusatory as the day it was written.Published July 28, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.