For years one of the pleasures of going to a Bob Dylan concert was the guessing game of "What will he play tonight?" It wasn't always easy to recognize the surprises, what with the new, flattened melodies and 12/8 tempos the songs often assumed, but it was a real delight when you did.
This year that game is over. With few exceptions, Dylan has spent most of 2014 playing the same 19 songs in the same order. At Washington's DAR Constitution Hall Tuesday night, the vanished pleasure was replaced by a different, more substantial reward. Gone were the mumbling vocals and shambling ensemble that camouflaged under-rehearsed and half-remembered songs.
In their place were tight, forceful arrangements and crisply enunciated, emotionally focused vocals. If you play the same songs over and over again, it seems, you learn them so well that you can sing and play with a self-assurance that allows more risk-taking, not less.
For the first time in this century, the listener didn't have to wait through four songs as the bandleader warmed up nor through the lulls between the highlights. Here at last was a show that started at a high level and never let up.
It was also a show that made few concessions to nostalgia. Of the set's 19 songs, only six were from the 20th century—and one of those was 'Stay with Me' from Dylan's announced forthcoming album of Frank Sinatra covers. Unlike such contemporaries as Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, and Paul McCartney, Dylan has enough confidence in his new compositions to make them the core of his live show—not just token appearances in a greatest-hits retrospective.
That confidence was well placed, for the six songs from his 2012 album "Tempest" were among the show's most impressive moments. 'Duquesne Whistle' became a railroad shuffle; Dylan pounded the baby grand piano as lead guitarist Charlie Sexton and pedal steel guitarist Donnie Herron threw rockabilly phrases back at the leader till the latter was rolling his shoulders to the clickety-clack train rhythm. 'Early Roman Kings' became a Chicago blues stomp with Sexton on slide guitar. 'Soon After Midnight' became a lilting country love song at odds with its elliptical aphorisms.
Either sitting at the piano or standing at the mic with nothing but a harmonica, Dylan never touched a guitar all night. But he has seldom sung better, especially on slower songs such as 'Forgetful Heart' and 'Simple Twist of Fate.' And who wouldn't rather be surprised by a strong vocal than an unexpected song?