HOLYOKE -- The artistry of any Bob Dylan concert is elusive, created somewhere between the execution of the band, the audience’s understanding of his body of songs as originally recorded, and the erratic contributions of the artist himself.
His fans understand that the songs as they know them are phantoms, hovering somewhere behind the radically re-fashioned arrangements through which they’re delivered (or, as detractors may have it, disguised) in concert.
The key, as I find it, is to focus on the band and receive its snarling amalgam of roots rock, country and punkish defiance on its own terms. For an open-minded audience, the terms are good.
Dylan’s hard-charging show at Mountain Park over the weekend featured his "cowboy band" of three guitarists and a rhythm section. Eschewing polish, the band thrives on striking flints and throwing sparks, digging into subtle grooves and refusing to give way when the bandleader challenges with strident, sometimes-harsh piano leads. With Dylan’s weird charisma thrown into the mix -- and of course, his peerless cache of songs to kick up dirt around -- it made for a satisfying evening of halfway-deranged rock and weirdly haunting
Raw gospel poem "Every Grain of Sand" emerged as a loping, mid-tempo ballad featuring splashes of proto-ragtime piano licks from Dylan, and intersecting guitar lines authored by Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron, the latter on pedal steel. Dylan spat out the words in spasmodic fashion, adopting phrasing he favored on several songs -- chopping the lines into two-syllable bursts, the accent on the first in each pair, like a poetry student trying to suss out the underlying rhythm in iambic pentameter. Somehow the song remained magisterial, the parent composition refusing to be anything but gorgeous.
Dylan spent most of the night behind the piano, occasionally (as in the early-set "Tangled Up In Blue") moving center stage to deliver the first verse of a song from the mic stationed there. His big crooning moment came late in the show on "Ballad of a Thin Man," when he loosed that mic from its stand and sang the carnival dirge with a haunting echo effect repeating each line. (As if on cue, dozens -- hundreds? -- of smart phones shot into the air to preserve the moment on video.)
"Desolation Row" saw bassist Tony Garnier switch from electric to upright and second guitarist Stu Kimball move to his acoustic for a jazzy, moderately up-tempo interpretation paced by George Recile’s stylish drum fills. Rather than pure swing, it moved on an intense momentum as Dylan drew out the syllables, imbuing his vocals with an affecting sense of palpable yearning.
The show came only a few days before the release of his powerful new album "Tempest," a record that secures Dylan’s late period -- that is, counting from his 1997 return to form "Time out of Mind" onward -- as a stretch of sustained artistic excellence to rival any other in his career. Since he recorded the new record with his touring band, it’s a bewildering disappointment that he skipped its contents entirely.
Still, he sprinkled the set with tunes from his previous few albums, all high-energy romps like "The Levee’s Gonna Break" and "Thunder on the Mountain," which came out winners; ironically, the amphetamine rock of "Honest With Me" most recalled the raw studio bands of Dylan’s mid-1960s albums.
With his irreverent arrangements and elastic understanding of melody, Dylan takes the idea of the nostalgia rock show and turns it inside out. Yet, he has enough of the old-time showman in him to close every show with a dutiful run of canonized favorites. And so, when the encore came as "Blowin’ in the Wind" in the guise of a light parlor ballad that might have been penned by Stephen Foster, the crowd felt as if its expectations were answered. And in some sideways way, they were.