Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour is in its 30th year.
The miles, and the years too, are present at almost every turn.
Dylan reels, rocks and sways at the microphone, his guitar no longer anywhere in sight.
He sits at the piano and plows ahead through his own material, some of which it seems by now should be entered into The Great American Songbook, that catalogue of standards Dylan has combed through in the studio on three straight albums.
All of a sudden, as if he’s got the fever or the holy ghost, he jumps up from the bench behind the baby grand and pounds the keyboard, almost hell-bent on snapping the strings beneath the wooden frame.
On Saturday night — making his second stop in three years at Roanoke’s Berglund Performing Arts Theatre — Dylan punched through old numbers, rattled his way through more recent blues- and rockabilly-infused songs, and charmed the crowd in the 2,148-seat auditorium with new renditions of sweet and melancholic tunes.
He is an artist, as diehard fans know well, who is constantly reinventing himself, if only reworking his own songs to fashion them to his current liking.
There’s a certain romantic quality to that type of dedication, to the reshaping of one’s ideas. Writers do the same thing. So do painters and architects and social scientists. Some people want to complete a project and be done with it. Others keep hacking away.
So there were no stale, here-we-go-again renditions Saturday night, even on tunes that missed the mark. Instead, Dylan showcased fresh versions, barely recognizable underneath the veneer of different melodies and time signatures that kept the audience guessing.
In a two-hour set, he reached back with classics like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
He incorporated “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Simple Twist of Fate.”
He never entered the crooner territory he dived into by examining The Great American Songbook, choosing instead three tracks off 2012’s “Tempest.” Those songs, “Pay In Blood,” “Scarlet Town” and “Early Roman Kings,” painted fiery images when they were released, and now sound particularly violent giving America’s current social and political climate.
He sprinkled in a few surprises, too, leading off the show with the more obscure “Things Have Changed” and later dusting off “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” He rocked, while the band fumbled through James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” only recently incorporated into the live repertoire.
I first saw Bob Dylan in concert in 1999. He had released “Time Out of Mind” less than two years before and had already reworked most of that material, so that some of it was almost unrecognizable.
A lot has changed since then. Most noticeably, that voice — the gravelly, sandpaper timbre, the source of impersonations and jokes that seemed hollow and outdated years ago. Dylan has taken on a more primordial, guttural growl than Jimmy Durante or Louis Armstrong could’ve ever managed. There were times Saturday when he wasn’t singing at all, but grunting and mumbling through his rhymes like incantations that needed to be delivered with haste.
And that was alright. No one in American music has written more poetry or remade himself so many times or provided such thought-provoking material as Dylan. There’s never been anyone like him. So in a way, he gets to make the rules.
And the rules state that this is how it is right now:
A small band on a small stage.
A man who shuffles from piano to microphone and back again.
A lonesome, haunting harmonica cutting through the dark.
A mournful steel guitar.
An intimate setting that makes for an imperfect show, with every flaw on full display.
Songs that make you smile and furrow your brow and laugh and cry.
That’s why people keep going back to hear Bob Dylan, hoping the tour never ends.