There are so many Bob Dylans that I don’t want to read too much into this. For all we know, Dylan will hit the road with Pearl Jam next year and play a couple hundred hard-rock shows. But two lovely videos suggest that he is settling into the twilight of his career following his unexpected triumphs of the past dozen or so years.
I’ll deal with the better-known example first: his recent performance at the White House of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Backed by just Tony Garnier on upright bass and pianist Patrick Warren, Dylan offers an interesting contrast. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his guitar (in fact, he’s spent most of his time on stage in recent years randomly stabbing at an electronic keyboard), and he stops and starts several times. Yet he’s right on top of it vocally, singing a downbeat version of what was once a confident anthem. It bears repeated viewing — and listening.
The second is a live-in-the-studio version of Woodie Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” (it’s the second video here). Dylan plays guitar, accompanied by Ry Cooder on electric guitar and Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, of all people, on piano. As with the White House performance, Dylan’s singing combines his characteristic ragged edges with a softness and sweetness that I’ve rarely heard from him before.
I’m struck by what an effective, evocative singer Dylan can still be when his quiet rasp isn’t being overwhelmed by a full band. I’m also struck by the humility of these performances. The elderly-Western-gunslinger persona that he adopted during the past decade has been replaced by something more natural, more human.
None of us knows how much Dylan’s got left to give. His collaboration last year with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter, “Together Through Life,” was fun, but hardly up to his recent standards. His Christmas album was largely a joke, though I like the video for “Must Be Santa.” He is 68 years old and has a lot of miles on his odometer.
But he’s still capable of surprising us — and moving us.