Bob Dylan at Xcel Energy Center, 11/7/12

Photo by Adam Grahek
Bob Dylan
With Mark Knopfler
Xcel Center, St. Paul
November 7, 2012

Bob Dylan last performed in the Twin Cities on election night 2008. For most of us gathered that evening in the Northrop Auditorium, he actually broke the news that Barack Obama had won the election and would be the next president, telling the crowd, "I was born in 1941... That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been living in darkness ever since. It looks like things are going to change now." He and his band then broke into a spirited version of "Blowin' in the Wind" before sending most of the left-leaning crowd to bask in Obama's glory at home, in the streets, at a pub, or wherever the night blew them.

So it seemed fitting to see Bobby and his band last night right as the next presidential cycle came to a close with Obama's reelection. But unfortunately, a ho-hum performance didn't send folks home wanting to celebrate Obama or much of anything else.

See Also:
Bob Dylan's most memorable Minnesota performances (1998-2008)
Five underrated Bob Dylan songs from oft-forgotten albums

Last night's set list mixed in a significant dose of material from the trio of albums Dylan has released in the last decade, including "Early Roman Kings" from his newest offering, Tempest. And while the albums themselves hold up well enough when listened to at home, the relatively new songs have a tendency to sound like meandering, melodically bereft blues jams live, as though Dylan's backing band just looked at the chord changes two minutes before taking the stage. (Admittedly, that rock n' roll laissez faire-ness is part of the current Dylan band's appeal.)

Things picked up during the latter half of the set with a heavy concentration of classics like "All Along the Watchtower," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Ballad of a Thin Man." Those familiar tunes energized a three quarters-full Xcel crowd -- the upper level of the arena was closed off -- that seemed disengaged for long stretches. But after just a one-tune encore ("Blowin' in the Wind"), Dylan and company took a bow, the house lights came up, and that was that. Instead of inspiring celebration, folks mostly seemed to feel like yawning. Maybe Bob has just been disillusioned by Obama's first term or something.

Vocally, Dylan actually sounds better than he did while unintelligibly growling through most of his set four years ago at Northrup. His distinctive brand of sing-rapping sounded clearer and less guttural last night, and for a 71-year-old man, he still has plenty of energy. He's even added a new and welcome twist where he gets up from behind his piano (Dylan played no guitar last night), grabs a mic, and assumes the Jagger-esque frontman role, complete with gesticulations and sways. So the something-missing about the show didn't have anything to do with Dylan suddenly getting too old to hack it or just not being up to the task for some other reason. On the whole, the performance was just flat.

That flatness was exemplified by the conspicuous and total absence of any banter with the audience. In fact, the only time Dylan spoke to the crowd at all was to introduce his band. That'd be understandable anywhere else, but not so much in Bob's home state. Sure, Dylan has always had a love-hate relationship with Minnesota, but as someone who identifies with the Land of 10,000 Lakes symbolism permeating some of his best material, it was galling to see a homecoming gig treated as if it were just another night on the road in Scranton or something.

Another part of the problem had to do with the venue. The Xcel Center, even with a significant portion of it closed off, just feels like too big of a space for the subtle music Dylan is playing these days. Then again, considering the lackluster energy of most of the performance (to be clear, there were some high points, including a nice version of "Tangled Up In Blue" with Knopfler guesting on guitar) it wouldn't have been fun to be standing the whole time either.

Bob Dylan will go down as arguably the greatest American songwriter of the 20th Century. So if you're a fan and you have a chance to see him, you do it, and as long as he's physically capable of pulling off live rock n' roll (and continues to play with stellar backing musicians) it won't be a regrettable choice. But considering how strong his recent Twin Cities shows were coming into last night, here's to hoping the metro where he first cut his teeth as a prodigious musical talent will be fortunate enough to host another Dylan show that sends attendees home feeling thoughtfully high on life, as I felt while exiting the Northrup on election night '08. He's still clearly capable of delivering that, even if it didn't happen last night.

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