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On what is quite likely to be his last ever tour, the Master is still irresistible
Bob Dylan performs in London’s Hyde Park on July 12, 2019.

Bob Dylan launched the Japanese leg of his “Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour 2021-2024” in Osaka’s Festival Hall on Thursday, April 6 (or “Holy Thursday,” as Easter-conscious fans might call it).

He played the exact same 17 songs in the exact same order and in the exact same way that he’d played them during pretty much every show of his tour’s latest U.S. leg last fall: seven legacy numbers, “That Old Black Magic” from 2016’s Fallen Angels, and all nine cuts from disc one of his well-received 2020 album, the one after which he has named the tour.

Eighty encore-free minutes all told.

So why bother shelling out and showing up at all when you can bring up a complete November 2022 Dylan concert on YouTube and hear an almost identical replica of what you missed?

Because, in the case of the Osaka show, you’d have missed the experience of seeing Dylan in a magnificent 2,700-seat theater, on a stage surrounded by blood-red, ceiling-to-floor curtains that, combined with the low-key lighting, gave what was going on the feel of a dream.

And you’d have missed the experience of watching this dream play out in the company of the most intensely respectful audience in the world. Other than some “Hey, we recognize that one!” applause at the beginning of a few numbers, the fans (about four-fifths native and two-thirds old enough to have been present at Budokan ’78) sat in rapt attention. No one called out “Watchtower!,” “Blowin’ in the Wind!,” “Murder Most Foul!,” or “Wiggle Wiggle!” No one walked around or talked. No one clutched, stared at, or filmed with cell phones (because if you brought one in, you had to lock it down in a pouch until after the show.) A few people clapped along to “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” because in their latest arrangements both songs boogaloo something fierce. But most people were content just to pay attention.

You’d have missed the Dylan-band debut of the Old Crow Medicine Show drummer Jerry Pentecost, whose oversized white-rimmed glasses made him look from afar like a creature from another planet. You’d have missed Tony Garnier motion for him to pick up the pace on “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” You’d have missed Dylan point at his guitarist Bob Britt right after the line about William Blake in “I Contain Multitudes” (as if to say what, exactly? “Nice strum, Bob?” “This line’s for you…”?).

And, finally, you’d have missed the merch tables presided over by super-polite young Japanese ladies who, even though COVID-masked and anonymous, made forking over yen for T-shirts, hats, shopping bags, and Japanese-editions of Dylan best-ofs a unique pleasure. (When the Japanese translation of The Philosophy of Modern Song comes out on April 14, it’ll probably show up there too.)

Those are all good reasons. But there are better.

Let’s face it. Although Dylan seems in unusually fine fettle for someone who’s about to turn 82, he sings everything sitting down these days, he never touches a guitar, he only blows harmonica on “Every Grain of Sand,” and he walks on and offstage with an octogenarian gait. Besides, there’s probably a reason that he’s included an end date in the official name of this tour and that that end date is 2024: namely, that by that time, the night for Dylan to call it a day may have finally come falling from the sky.


Live Nation JAPAN

So, yes, see him while you can and all that. But see him too because he and his band have refined a show that, while not consistently overt about its debts to Dylan’s musical roots (no one has yet coined genre names sufficient to encapsulate “I Contain Multitudes,” “Key West [Philosopher Pirate],” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”), is one that could not get where it’s going were it not haunted by folk, rock and roll, and the blues.

And where it’s going—right to the edge, right to the end, where all things lost are made good again—is someplace special. Not since Dylan played Slow Train Coming and Saved in their entirety to initially bewildered fans in ’79 and ’80 has he devoted a tour, and a three-year, world-wide one at that, to one particular album.

Back then, his purpose was clear: Repent, and believe in the Gospel. And pieces of that message persist (in the references to Bible-thumping and creed-proclaiming in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” in the references to the “wings of a snow-white dove” and the “gospel of love” in “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”). But those fragments now jostle with plenty of others traceable to the contradictory multitudes that he contains.

Originally scheduled for 2020 but canceled when Japan went on lockdown, the April 6 show (followed on consecutive evenings by two others in the same venue, then six more in Tokyo and three more in Nagoya) was a make-up date. It was also significantly different from what Osakans would’ve gotten three years ago.

Dylan’s set lists in those days, other than skipping his 1980s altogether, represented a career-spanning best-of, highlighted by the cleverest revamping of “Like a Rolling Stone” that he’d ever sprung on an unsuspecting public. Rough and Rowdy Ways, in the can but not due to be released for months in 2020, wouldn’t have figured at all.

Now, it dominates, with Dylan as committed to delivering and enunciating every word as he was when he tracked the album in L.A. “Key West” has undergone subtle melodic morphing, but so far it’s alone.

And Dylan is too. “I’m first among equals,” he declares in “False Prophet,” “second to none / the last of the best / you can bury the rest.”

It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.

Dylan can.

Someday, maybe soon, he’ll find out something only dead men know. But for now he’s made up his mind to give these songs to us. He wants to fill our mouths with gold. The least we can do is open up.