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Bob Dylan returns to the Met Philly, shouts-out Frankie Avalon and the Rocky statue

The octogenarian Nobel Prize winning singer is back out on the road on his 'Rough and Rowdy Ways' tour. He's scheduled to play the North Broad Street again on Tuesday night.

Bob Dylan with band members Tony Garnier and Donnie Herron performs at the Roskilde Festival on July 3, 2019, in Roskilde, Denmark. He played the Met Philadelphia on Monday night nd was scheduled to return on Tuesday.  (Helle Arensbak/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
Bob Dylan with band members Tony Garnier and Donnie Herron performs at the Roskilde Festival on July 3, 2019, in Roskilde, Denmark. He played the Met Philadelphia on Monday night nd was scheduled to return on Tuesday. (Helle Arensbak/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)Read moreHELLE ARENSBAK / MCT

Bob Dylan stood center stage at the Met Philadelphia Monday with microphone in hand and a smile on his face.

That’s right, a smile. It was fleeting, and perhaps a little malicious, coming after a burst of bravado in “False Prophet,” a bruising blues track from Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways.

“I’m first among equals, second to none,” he snarled, then shared his plans for his enemies: “Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold / Put them six feet under and I pray for their souls.”

The wicked grin he then flashed was an early indication that this Dylan show — his 53rd in Philadelphia since playing the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square in 1963 — would be an uncharacteristically relaxed and engaging evening with the Bard, out on the road again on his newly resumed Never Ending Tour.

Dylan, who is scheduled to return Tuesday to the century-old North Broad Street opera house, was the first to play it when it reopened in 2018. He hit the stage Monday with his five backing musicians at precisely 8 p.m.

The show took place in an almost full Met in the first week of concerts to take place since news of the omicron variant of the coronavirus spurred new worries for the struggling-to-get-back-on-its-feet live music industry.

Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test was required for entry, and audience members who weren’t drinking were nearly universally masked, though security was mostly preoccupied with enforcing Dylan’s no-cell-phone-photos policy.

The 80-year-old singer took his spot behind the piano, where he stood throughout show as his dressed-in-black band anchored by longtime bassist Tony Garnier and brand-new drummer Charley Drayton rumbled into two decades-old songs that struck a timeless theme about the human inability to see eye to eye.

“People disagreeing everywhere you look, makes you want to sit down and read a book,” the Nobel Prize winner was heard to sing once the sound system settled down and his scrappy vocals became audible in “Watching the River Flow,” from 1971. That was followed by a rugged “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” from 1966′s Blonde on Blonde.

» READ MORE: Bob Dylan played dodgeball in the Northeast and other stories from his half-century playing Philly

The latter was the only song out of 17 over the course of 95 minutes to come from Dylan’s pre-motorcycle-accident, 1960s Voice of a Generation period. There was no “Like a Rolling Stone” or “All Along the Watchtower” encore, or anything that could be construed as pandering to popular taste.

Instead, the show included eight songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways, the funny, foreboding and chilling album that’s every bit as good as Dylan thinks it is, plus a superb selection of older songs that culminated in a delicately delivered closer: “Every Grain of Sand,” the sublime, spiritual meditation from 1981′s Shot of Love.

That final song was preceded by a most welcome thing for Dylan watchers. After concluding the set with Rough and Rowdy’s “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” — which, with “Blind Willie McTell” and “High Water (for Charley Patton)” completes a trilogy of song titles that name-check his blues heroes — the great man did something he rarely does.

He spoke! News flash: Bob Dylan not only introduces the band — which also included guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio (the group’s other new member) along with pedal steel, fiddle, and accordion player Donnie Herron — but he also clowns around on stage.

“It’s good to be back in Philadelphia,” he said, making nice in a way that would have seemed boilerplate were it not coming from such a normally tight-lipped mystery man. “Home of the Liberty Bell. Birthplace of Frankie Avalon and the Rocky statue. And cheesesteaks — can’t forget those.”

Besides the stage patter, there were ample musical highlights. The complaints from Dylan fans who have given up on seeing him live are many. His voice can sound as if he’s been gargling battery acid. He frequently has run through hastily revamped versions of his classics, as if determined to never give people what they think they want.

» READ MORE: Bob Dylan’s new ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ is his best in decades

This show was not like that. There was very little mumbling. Rather than allowing his voice to be swallowed up by blues-rock grooves, the band stayed out of Dylan’s way, even as a terrific “Gotta Serve Somebody” kicked into overdrive.

And the singer enunciated, intent on putting over carefully rearranged chestnuts like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “To Be Alone With You” and Rough and Rowdy highlights such as “I Contain Multitudes,” in which he called himself “a man of contradictions, a man of many moods.”

That trend toward vocal articulation was perhaps shaped by the three albums of pre-rock American standards that Dylan released in the last decade, full of songs associated with Frank Sinatra that filled up the set list on recent tours.

The only cover on Monday night was “Melancholy Mood,” a Walter Schumann-Vick Knight composition that Sinatra first recorded in 1939. It was the one song that Dylan — who didn’t play guitar — came out from behind his piano and stayed front and center for its full duration

“Melancholy Mood” was paired with Rough and Rowdy’s “I’ve Made up My Mind To Give Myself to You,” one of the most simple and direct love songs Dylan’s ever penned. And it’s also a song that on this gracious evening, it seemed like the songwriter was addressing to his fans, who he was pleased to be back in the same room with after a pandemic-forced separation.

“I’m giving myself to you, I am,” he sang to his reconvened audience. “From East L.A. to San Antone, I don’t think I can bear to live my life alone.” Bob Dylan, not such a misanthrope after all.