Exclaim!

Bob Dylan

Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON, November 14

Bob Dylan
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The first song in a contemporary Dylan set is usually a vocal warm-up and often insubstantial. "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" proved no exception. For the past couple years, the highlight has been the third song, "Things Have Changed," during which Bob shows off his dance moves (a duck walk, an Elvis-inspired flare of the leg) centre stage, as if he wants to make up for vocal losses with soft-shoe hilarity. A yell-heavy but effective rendering proved that Dylan planned on delivering in his first show in Toronto since 2006.

With guest Mark Knopfler adding all the right licks, Dylan was enthusiastic enough to extemporize a few lines. After, "I thought I saw something move," he added a jokey, "What could it be?" And after "Put it in a wheelbarrow," a goading, "And then what?" Having established that he indeed still had something to offer, he strutted over to the grand piano to pound out some loud discordant mischief.

Next, Dylan did what he has largely refused to do on this tour — he played a song from Tempest, a serviceable version of "Early Roman Kings." The song that followed was a pleasant surprise. A deep cut from the back catalogue that has only recently been dusted off after years of neglect: "Joey," an anthemic tribute to New York gangster Joey Gallo. Though he could not hold onto the long "Jo-eeeee" of the chorus, and instead shouted a clipped "Joe/E," this was the most powerful performance of the night. Another possible lyrical replacement here — the line, "Called them amateurs," sounded an awful lot like, "Called them entrepreneurs." A possible post-election dig at Romney? You never can tell with the poet laureate of rock'n'roll.

Sadly, although Bob was giving his best, "Joey" drew a muted response from the lacklustre crowd, some small pockets of "Joey" enthusiasm were found in the beer line. This is the paradox of Bob Dylan fandom — some take out loans and let their children go hungry for the chance to see a moment like this, others text in confusion or outright leave.

A workmanlike effort on "Visions of Johanna," the perfunctory yet crowd-pleasing "Highway 61 Revisited" and the rollicking "Thunder on the Mountain" all helped to provide a sense of value for those who weren't really sure what they were experiencing for most of the show.

Many early walkouts greeted "Ballad of a Thin Man," as though enough growling was enough growling already. This was a shame because Dylan really strove to connect with an impassioned harmonica solo late in the song. There's also a cool reverb effect that always make this a little less boring for those who have heard it ten thousand times.

Even the nearly exhausted "Like a Rolling Stone" had some minor efficacy, but a guy in his 60s was overheard saying, "He should be embarrassed." Then, why come? YouTube could give you an indication of how Bob sounds in 2012, pal.

Here's a theory: Since the oddly perfect New York Post headline, "Bob Dylan Heart Scare" in 1997 and the subsequent release of Time Out of Mind, thousands, perhaps millions, have attended his shows fearing they might never have another opportunity. That was 15 years ago, so it's certain these hospice-duty fans have not always been thoroughly entertained in their prolonged funeral march. Yet no serious Dylan fan could ever risk missing the Bard's last appearance in his/her region. In the light of cold economic truth, this deathwatch is a big part of the never-ending tour's ongoing profitability.

Which doesn't actually matter one bit. Because at the end, Bob asks, "How does it feel?" and sure, maybe he was barky and didn't do much actual singing, and maybe five hack writers are at that moment finishing their "Time for Bob to retire!" column, but Bob Dylan asked you, "How does it feel?" and that is worth something big and true and meaningful to anybody who cares the least little bit about good American music.
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