At Rogers Arena on October 12
They made an interesting contrast. Mark Knopfler focused mainly on songs from his current album Privateering for his excellent opening set at the Roger’s Arena, and didn’t play anything from his glory days as leader of Dire Straits (1977-1995). Whereas Bob Dylan, habitually perverse in such matters, chose not to perform any of the material from his own new release Tempest, revisiting his back pages with predictably mixed results.
Knopfler’s approach was vindicated by the strength his recent songwriting. He’s absorbed folk idioms from England and Ireland and integrated them with the core of his music—blues, country, and rock—in a unique way.
The title track “Privateering”, which Knopfler introduced early, is a fine example—a faux 18th-century pirate ballad set to the melody of the folk-spiritual “Gospel Plow”. Fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, Knopfler started out on his own, with just another guitar accompanying, but soon brought in the full force of his superb eight-piece band.
There were plenty of solo flights for Knopfler on electric guitar in a set that ran well over the hour. At the end of “Yon Two Crows” he soared with his hallmark fluid technique and elegant phrasing. But the lead instrument wasn’t always his own. Knopfler generously gave a great deal of space to the flute, uilleann bagpipes, and tin whistle of Michael McGoldrick, who played with awesome skill—often very fast but never rushed, so able to add full Irish ornamentation, vary his breathing patterns, and emotionally energize the melodies.
The musicians were clearly having a ball playing together. Knopfler’s long final number was a string of songs that started out with the Appalachian-inspired “Marbletown”—featuring Knopfler on guitar played clawhammer-style to sound like a banjo—and morphed into a series of beautifully-arranged Celtic tunes.
The pace varied brilliantly from full throttle band to slow, smouldering passages played by a trio of Knopfler, McGoldrick, and Scottish fiddler John McCusker. The subtlety proved too much for a handful of idiots in the arena who started slow-clapping. After such an amazing set from Knopfler it was embarrassing, and no doubt cost us an encore—which according to previous set lists would indeed have been a Dire Straits song “So Far Away”. Thanks guys.
The stage was still dark when the searing sound of Charlie Sexton’s guitar rent the air, and in the penumbra a small figure in broad-brimmed hat and what looked like a Civil War era black uniform walked over to the keyboards. Bob Dylan and his five musicians then launched into the brisk and bluesy “Watching the River Flow”.
The voice seemed to be in ravaged good form, a croak and rattle that was at least varied and nuanced. Sadly it didn’t last for the full set and by the end Dylan was barking.
Most of the time he played a grand piano, with the band in an arc around him, keenly focused on his every twitch. On several occasions however he moved close to the front of the stage, sang into a handheld mic, and gave some blasts on harmonica that were more rhythmic than melodic. With his other hand he cued the band and made a few oddly dramatic and angular gestures.
He said nothing of course, except at the end to introduce his band and thank the audience. Dylan is criticized for not engaging his public but that’s missing the point. He’s long cultivated remoteness and enigma.
However the refusal to perform new songs is baffling. Still, there were some surprises. The second song was “Ramona”, off Another Side of Bob Dylan  , in a version that really brought out the waltz-time rhythm. “Tangled Up In Blue” had a verse missing—the one with revolution in the air—and some interesting new lines. “High Water (For Charley Patton)" got a whole slew of fresh lyrics, and seemed appropriate on the first sloshy night in months.
Dylan’s band is incredibly tight—too much so. The contrast with Knopfler’s outfit was glaring. The musicians were kept on a close leash, and leaned in keenly to catch every gesture and cue from Dylan. There were some good new interpretations of songs—a rollicking “Highway 61”, a dark and relentless “Love Sick”. The bright Latin feel Dylan gave “Desolation Row” was a brave try, but didn’t really work because at this point his vocal delivery had become so monotonous, with the intonation rising at the end of each phrase as if in self-parody. He doesn’t sing like that on Tempest, and it drains the songs of feeling.
“Like a Rolling Stone”, of course, brought a huge cheer, but the interpretation carried little punch and didn’t bring out the brilliant dynamics of its structure. The last song “All Along the Watchtower” fared better, in a hard-driving version with Dylan’s bare piano and Sexton’s stabbing guitar. At the end Dylan pranced to the front, acknowledged the cheering crowd and disappeared.
He re-emerged for a final surprise—a radically-altered “Blowing in the Wind”, jaunty, bluesy, and reminiscent of Blond on Blond’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry”. It worked well because the words are so simple and malleable.
Dylan is a master magician of song with many guises, but he could learn a few tips from fellow-poet and elder Leonard Cohen about vocal delivery in live shows, and get some advice from Knopfler about letting a band breathe and doing new material.