Bob Dylan’s October 2019 concert at Credit Union 1 Arena was a peak experience for Chicago-based fans, hailed as the then-septuagenarian’s best showing here in a decade. Dylan had shed torch songs and Sinatra homages featured at recent Ravinia Festival dates, delivering sturdy originals from 2012’s “Tempest” and more.
Once off the road, Dylan took his band swiftly to the studio and fashioned his best-received album since 1997’s “Time Out of Mind. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” was a musical highlight during 2020, promising good things to come.
But momentum stalled for The Bard during the fallow year as it did for everyone else.
This week, Dylan resumed road life with a retooled lineup after his longest break since 1984, arriving in Chicago for a concert Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theatre. It had been a lengthy absence for many attendees, too. The Romanesque surroundings and even-tempered acoustics of the Auditorium Theatre provided an inviting setting for people returning to their first communal music experience since the initial COVID-19 lockdown, gathered to hear an artist frequently feted as an American musical treasure.
The show celebrated songs old and new — but mostly new. Dylan made a case for continued relevance by featuring eight of 10 songs from “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” and by drawing more than half of the evening’s songs from the last decade. That meant casual fans didn’t hear classic rock staples such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” or even the frequently performed “Tangled Up in Blue.” Dylan’s devoted, however, enjoyed hearing what makes the 1960s icon tick in the 21st century.
The show began as Dylan’s black-suited band played a rollicking version of 1971’s “Watching the River Flow.” Dylan himself appeared in a matching suit with white jacket, commanding the song with strong voice. After singing a verse at center stage, he moved to a console piano to spar with guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio for the song’s remainder. Wherever he sang, Dylan was in shadow. The musicians were moodily illuminated by lights beneath the floor.
The first rowdy cheer was sparked by a new song, with Dylan making a resonant and gravel-voiced proclamation of the title to “I Contain Multitudes.” The song’s braggadocio was paradoxically presented in the set’s most pastoral arrangement. During one inviting passage led by Donnie Herron’s lilting pedal steel guitar, Dylan rebuked an antagonist. “You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart,” he sang with menace. “But not all of it, only the hateful part.” “Key West,” by comparison, was amiable and wistful.
Bathed in dim red light, the cinematic lyric to “My Own Version of You” cast Dylan as Doctor Frankenstein while the band spun an eerie soundtrack; Dylan and Locio traded lines between piano and guitar. The understated but potent “Black Rider” was similarly haunted with an arid twang, underscored by longtime sideman Tony Garnier’s bowed double bass.
Dylan twisted familiar songs into fascinating new shapes. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” evolved from Gospel roots into a jaunty arrangement featuring Charley Drayton’s brushed snare drum. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was a country two-step on “John Wesley Harding,” but on Wednesday it became a soul rave-up styled after Roy Head and the Traits’ “Treat Her Right” spiked by Dylan’s howling harmonica. The moody Christian anthem “Gotta Serve Somebody” was adrenalized as Britt and Lancio faced off for hot licks. Garnier gave gut-bass thump to “Nashville Skyline’s” “To Be Alone With You.”
Rust was only evident during an encore of the dramatic “Love Sick,” which faltered as if the band was still dialing in the arrangement. The seasoned players recovered rapidly, finishing strong with a slow blues interpretation of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
After concluding the main set with the loping roadhouse blues “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” Dylan made his lone address to the audience. “We’re happy to play here,” he said. “We love Chicago, just like you do.”
Irascible at any age, Dylan at 80 didn’t treat the evening in stately surroundings like a museum exhibit. He said precious little. He simply walked onstage and began playing songs, introducing new ones and subverting his classics. That still-invigorated approach drew his most ardent fans back to a crowded concert hall. That act and those songs spoke volumes.
1. “Watching the River Flow”
2. “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”
3. “I Contain Multitudes”
4. “False Prophet”
5. “When I Paint My Masterpiece”
6. “My Own Version of You”
7. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”
8. “Black Rider”
9. “To Be Alone With You”
10. “Mother of Muses”
11. “Gotta Serve Somebody”
12. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
13. “Early Roman Kings”
14. “Melancholy Mood” (Frank Sinatra cover)
15. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”
16. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”
17. “Love Sick”
18. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”