Monday, Oct. 19, 2009 | 6:50 a.m.
Bob Dylan smiled.
There he was, the self-styled cowboy drifter, poet laureate of rock 'n' roll, fronting a five-piece band at the Joint Sunday night, playing some down-home rockabilly blues and breathing new life into classics that got the middle-aged-office-job crowd swinging their hips and shaking some serious tail.
By any measure, it was a knockout. And Dylan, who celebrated his 68th birthday in May, seemed to love every minute of it.
By the third song, a reworked, slow-burning "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," Dylan, dressed in black suit and hat, was grinning at the tale of failed love he penned 46 years ago. My friend turned to me and said his voice sounded like "it has been put through a meat grinder." That meat grinder is called life -- chased with a steady diet of cigarettes, booze and world tours. For better or worse, this is Dylan, as a colleague put it, "in full croak," and the songs are as relevant as ever.
Time and the recession have given new meaning to lines like, "Something is happening here/But you don't know what it is."
In nearly two hours time, Dylan and his band pounded (and there is no other word for it) through 17 songs, drawing heavily from his last three records, which gave the whole set a Mississippi Delta vibe. Dylan stationed himself behind an electronic keyboard for most of the set, but came out front occasionally to play harp and sing. (For the record, Dylan has said he just can't find someone who plays piano the way he wants.) Even behind the keys, it was clear he thrived on the music, leaning into the notes.
That's a marked departure from the first time I saw Dylan perform a decade ago. In 1999, he played a double-bill with Paul Simon in Camden, N.J. The two dueted on "The Sounds of Silence" and Dylan flubbed the lyrics, singing the same verse twice. When he did his own set, things didn't get much better. A friend and Dylan fanatic had one word for me: Sorry.
Two years later, I saw him at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia, fresh off recording "Love And Theft," the second masterwork in what many consider to be a modern trilogy. He was good, if removed. The set list was stellar, but something seemed to be missing.
Sunday night, everything clicked, starting with the opening cut, a slow-shuffling "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat." Dylan emerged from behind the keys to play harp on "The Man In Me," then guitar on "Don't Think Twice," and then it was into the Tex-Mex stomp of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'."
On "Spirit in the Water," from 2006's "Modern Times," Dylan sang, "You think I'm over the hill/You think I'm past my prime/Let me see what got/We can have a whoopin' good time." Everyone did -- even the guy crowing into a cell phone about catastrophic life insurance in the will-call line.
Each song built on the next. And then it got loud. "Highway 61 Revisited" was a revelation, punctuated by treble guitar. Three songs later, Dylan was pointing and gesturing the verses of "Ballad of a Thin Man," ripping into a killer harp solo. A short break, and the band was back playing "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower."
There it was, life -- its ups, downs and in-betweens. Dylan may croak, but his lines still soar.