Bob Dylan opened with "Watching the River Flow," then followed with an unhurried, self-assured two-hour show of his now-trademark roadhouse rock 'n' roll to launch a three-night stand at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom Thursday.
Appearing lively and in fine fettle in a purple jacket topped with a wide, flat-brimmed hat, alternating fast songs with slow and moving back and forth from keyboards to guitar while throwing in occasional harmonica, Dylan gave a confident performance that mixed more recent material with acknowledged classics.
Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, long and lean and usually center stage if sometimes kneeling as if in service to Dylan, has added a new and compelling element to his touring band. His solos sprung from drummer George Recile's unconventional shuffle-step syncopation, Sexton took the cockeyed funkiness Robbie Robertson brought to Dylan's music in the '60s and added a graceful glide to it, most notably on a version of "The Levee's Gonna Break" that recalled Dylan's "thin wild mercury" prime and later on a sinewy "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum."They traded leads on an extended introduction to an utterly unsentimental version of "Just Like a Woman," then swapped lines after a delightfully dissonant Dylan organ solo on "Highway 61 Revisited."
The setlist was a carefully paced mixture of fast and slow, new and old, designed for Dylan's current tour of smaller venues, and if it didn't vary all that much from other stops on the tour, it nevertheless found a rarity in an early appearance of "Girl From the North Country," from Dylan's second album more than 45 years ago, and it climaxed with fan favorites "Ballad of a Thin Man" at the end of the main set and "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All on the Watchtower" as encores.
The enthusiastic audience filled the floor, although there was ample room at the back and in the balcony. Tickets remain for shows tonight and Saturday, and Dylan has rarely been better, although this show wasn't quite up to the energy and righteous anger of his gigs at the even smaller Metro a dozen years ago, when he was first proving his late-career comeback was for real and sustained.
And with the opening "River Flow" and the later "Levee's Gonna Break," he seemed attuned to the current Chicago weather. It's a pity they confiscated umbrellas on the way in, because of course it was raining on the way out.