A mysterious man in a white suit and boater hat walked onto the dimly lit stage of the Academy of Music just past 8 on Friday evening, whispering secrets into the microphone as a nimble, five piece band played behind him. “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie,” he sang, confiding that he’s been “trying to get as far away from myself as I possibly can.”
For all his apparent existential discomfort, however - the opening number was "Things Have Changed" from the 2000 movie Wonder Boys - Bob Dylan was precisely where he wanted to be: Opening a three night weekend stand on south Broad Street in the midst of his Neverending Tour. (Tickets remain for both Saturday and Sunday night's shows.)
The illustrious episode in Dylan's career currently being celebrated is the 1967 period in which he removed himself from the road and rooted himself in upstate New York with The Band to make the casually brilliant recordings that came to be known as The Basement Tapes. An exhaustive box set was released this month, as was a collection called The New Basement Tapes in which Elvis Costello and other contemporary songwriters put to music Dylan lyrics from the period that the Bard had discarded.
Needless to say, Dylan - who sang, played harmonica and piano and never picked up a guitar - didn't bother mentioning any of this during either of the two one-hour sets he performed, with a 20 minute intermission, at the Academy on Friday. Nor did he play any songs from the period. That would amount to looking back, rather than moving ever onward, and thus would be contrary to the contrarian way of being that makes the 73 year old legend such a thorny, difficult, continually compelling character.
Of the 19 songs performed by Dylan and his superb band - which included guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, drummer George Receli, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron and longtime bandleader Tony Garnier on bass - four might be considered "classics" by his mostly over-60 audience.
Two of them - "She Belongs To Me" and an encore of "Blowin' In The Wind" - reached back to to his 1960s beginnings. And two came from 1975's heartbreak masterpiece Blood On The Tracks: "Simple Twist Of Fate" and "Tangled Up In Blue." All four had their arrangements reworked to various degrees.
But on a night when Dylan, despite his famously ravaged voice, sang with delicacy, rarely showing signs of strain or self-parody, the essence of the songs were preserved. That held especially true for "Tangled," even though its original lyrics were considerably altered by the pathologically tinkering songsmith.
Obsessive fans wishing to sing along to their hero rhyming "Offered me a pipe" with "I thought you'd never say hello, she said, you look like the silent type" were instead confronted with "Then she swept away the dust" with "You look like someone that I used to know, someone I could trust."
Instead of giving people what they think they want - longtime staples "All Along The Watchtower," "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Highway 61 Revisited" have all been jettisoned - Dylan gives them what he needs, and keeps himself vital while he's at it.
Friday's show made a powerful case for Tempest, his 2012 album whose 14 minute Titanic-inspired title song was mercifully left off the set list. Instead, Dylan dug into the album with six cuts that ranged from the brittle and sweet "Soon After Midnight" ("My heart is cheerful / It's never been fearful") to the ferocious Muddy Waters-style blues "Early Roman Kings," in which lead guitarist Sexton swaggered and Dylan snarled back: "I ain't dead yet / My bell still rings."
Dylan and band put such road tested fare across with dramatic flair, and though he didn't say a word to the audience all night, the septuagenarian singer was notably agile, energetic and seemingly pleased with himself throughout the evening.
There have been recent tours where the craggy songster seemed to be leaning on his electric piano to keep from falling over. On this night, he spent a lot of time sitting at the grand piano, where he did some of his most intriguing work, including the obscure ballad "Waiting For You" and the oddly mannered Frank Sinatra cover "Stay With Me" that closed the show.
But Dylan also sang every other song standing stage center, often striking a pose with legs wide and left hand resting on his hip, as if to say: "Look: I'm Bob Dylan." That proud proclamation was put into words and music during "Spirit On the Water," in which he lustily sang "You think I'm over the hill? You think I'm past my prime?" and the Pavlovian response came back at him enthusiastically from the crowd: "No!" Not by a long shot.