Bob Dylan and the balmy air of the Mid-Atlantic summer: the folksy voice of an era and the backwoods feel of Wolf Trap seem like they were meant to go together. However, for those fans hoping for a glimpse of that 1960’s Dylan likely would have been disappointed with last night’s performance. The Dylan that showed up is the “new” Dylan – if by new, we mean the Dylan of the last 20 or so years, the one that protests less and croons through cross-genre love stories more. This latest Dylan iteration is Dylan as cigar lounge front-man, with a big, loud band to support largely forgettable bluesy standards.
Dylan’s summer tour promotes his latest album, Fallen Angels, released in April of this year. Fallen Angels is his 37th studio album (yes, that’s 3-7) and follows on his Frank Sinatra tribute album Shadows in the Night from last year. Many of the songs in the performance are rehashings of old classics, such as Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do from 1923 and Sinatra’s I’m A Fool to Want You (1951), All or Nothing at All (1939), and Autumn Leaves (1956). The sole entrants from the 1960s Dylan that I could discern were She Belongs to Me (1965), a rousing rendition of Tangled up in Blue (1975), and a nearly-unrecognizable version of Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) during the encore.
Dylan is touring with Mavis Staples, the renowned R&B and gospel singer and civil rights activist. Like Tina Turner, also born in 1939, Staples makes 76 look like the new 35. Staples puts on a stirring show that peaks with a rhythmic improvisation on the Staples’ Singers classic “I’ll Take You There.” Staples howls – at a times with such energy and power that James Brown came to mind – and proclaims that she’s been “taking us there for 66 years.” Staples reminds us, too, that she marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr. and that the memory of that struggle is not over. “I was there,” she tells us, “And I’m still here!”
She is still here, and her performance was an impressive show of energy and consistency that serves as a reminder not just of her own role in the civil rights movement, but Dylan’s too. This is particularly meaningful given that the Dylan of late is not the civil rights icon many of us remember. The 1960s Dylan is not a natural predecessor to the 2016 Dylan that sings Sinatra love songs, but Mavis Staples ties together the old and new Bob and reminds us that he, too, is still here.
An interesting side note of history is that Dylan purportedly asked for Staples’ hand in marriage in the last 1960s: she turned him down after 7 years of dating, a decision that she has said she regrets. In a 2004 Washington Post interview, she voiced her regret: “We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn’t want me to marry a white guy.” Dylan has, in turn, referred to Staples, as the “love that I lost.”
Though many have criticized the quality of Dylan’s voice over the past few years, I found his voice to be stronger than the last time I saw him at the Verizon Center in 2012. Whatever your personal feelings about his recent turn to classic standards, he’s still Bob Dylan. He has reinvented himself time and again, gliding between folk, rock, jazz, blues, and in between with that gravelly garble we expect.
As Mavis Staples said during her set, “I like to hear him sing. But I also like to see him walk. He’s got that – what do they say? – swagger.” Bob Dylan is still Bob Dylan, and we’ll keep seeing him, even through muddled vocals and musical missteps. And he can still play the hell out of a harmonica.
Bob Dylan plays July 5 and 6, 2016 at 7:30 PM at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, – 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (877) WOLFTRAP (877) 965-3872, or purchase them online. For future Wolf Trap events, go to their calendar of events.