Bob Dylan The Chelsea, October 13.
First thing’s first: Congratulations are in order for the unofficial American Bard, Bob Dylan, on winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Thursday, for—to quote the Swedish Academy who chose him —“having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.”
And way to go, Cosmopolitan and Las Vegas, for having had the great fortune of hosting his only show hours after the announcement, which also fell between his sets last Friday and this Saturday at the Desert Trip classic rock extravaganza near Palm Springs.
For the former, many spent Thursday lauding him and his accomplishment, though others harrumphed that a wordsmith of print wasn’t chosen, Dylan’s literary legitimacy questioned much like his folk-singer credentials were back in 1965. As for our city, the BBC couldn’t resist a dig, quipping that no one else ever won a Nobel and played Vegas on the same day. If only they knew how close House of Blues came to booking Günter Grass back in 1999.
The Chelsea is no Royal Albert Hall, but it was an ideal Strip location for Dylan to celebrate his victory, if not directly. (As is his wont onstage, he didn’t speak to the audience, much less acknowledge his latest honor.) Besides boasting a crystal-clear sound system that allowed one to hear every nuance strummed and banged out by Dylan and his five-piece band, it’s one of the most intimate theater venues in the city, which meant its 2,900 attendees—a sellout—were never more than 100 feet away from the stage. This likely helped prevent the visible and audible indifference I’ve experienced at some of the singer-songwriter’s previous Vegas shows.
In stark contrast, fans at the Chelsea kept their traps shut except to frequently cheer Dylan on—especially when he picked up his guitar and harmonica, or sung particular refrains and song titles—and shower him with no less than six standing ovations, partly due to their post-Nobel celebratory spirit, surely, but mostly because Dylan was that good.
The newly crowned laureate is not known for his consistency onstage. It seems for every great show, like his spirited 2009 show at the old Joint, there’s one where Dylan looks disengaged and gives a half-hearted performance, like he did at his last Vegas appearance in 2012 at Mandalay Bay Events Center. He all but erased bad memories of that latter performance during last night’s 90-minute tour de force.
For one, he didn’t give a single song on the 17-number setlist the short shrift. Even during “Blowing in the Wind,” one his most famous and performed songs—and reworked this time around to sound less of a folk anthem and more of a slow-dance number at a country wedding—he and the band inserted long instrumental passages between verses, giving it much more musical consideration than the bare-boned original.
He also tapped into the anxiety of the times with inclusions like the epic “Desolation Row,” Dylan and Charlie Sexton flawlessly syncing their recreations of the eight-note, south-of-the-border melody on piano and lead guitar, respectively, while Dylan described a chaos many fear we’re hurtling toward (if not currently enduring) and asked, “What side are you on?” Earlier in the show, he recounted a similar American bedlam during “Highway 61 Revisited,” played by the band with roundhouse-boogie gusto, and you could almost hear him channeling Donald Trump during the snappy, forceful and unrelenting “Pay in Blood.”
That song, among others, highlighted the musicians’ economic composition, never adding too much into the mix or overdoing the solos and leads, as well as their steadfast focus, especially when it came to rhythm. The anchoring, bluesy shuffle of another gem from 2012’s Tempest, “Early Roman Kings,” helped make it the sleeper of the setlist.
And finally, Dylan dug deep with regards to his vocals. The jokes about his often froggy delivery come easy, but within his current capabilities, Dylan shone, especially when crooning through the sweet and amatory “Make You Feel My Love” and “Why Try to Change Me Now,” one of the many Frank Sinatra songs he’s covered recently. He generally enunciated like he does on record, and punched up certain lines for dramatic flair. “He’s a coward and he steeeeeaaaaals,” he sneered in disgust during “Lonesome Day Blues.” And during “Tangled Up in Blue,” he sang the following with goose-pimpling conviction: “And everyone of them words rang true/And glowed like burnin' coal/Pourin' off of every page/Like it was written in my soul.”
The Swedish Academy could have rationalized their prizewinner with just that, and we have known exactly what they meant.
1. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
2. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
3. Highway 61 Revisited
4. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
5. High Water (For Charley Patton)
6. Simple Twist of Fate
7. Early Roman Kings
8. Love Sick
9. Tangled Up in Blue
10. Lonesome Day Blues
11. Make You Feel My Love
12. Pay in Blood
13. Desolation Row
14. Soon After Midnight
15. Ballad of A Thin Man
16. Blowin' in the Wind
17. Why Try To Change Me Now