MILWAUKEE — Bob Dylan always has had his own sense of time, and timing.
When the COVID-19 pandemic displaced him from the road for the first extended stretch since 1986, he released his first album of original material in eight years and presented his inaugural streamed concert.
Returning to the stage Tuesday night with a revamped band at the sold-out Riverside Theater, he played a whopping eight selections from his exceptional 2020 recording, "Rough and Rowdy Ways."
Dylan has never been one to trumpet his latest album in concert; he often ignores fresh material. But he tore into the new numbers with conviction and nuance, even as he relied heavily on lyric sheets.
Things have changed from the 1980s, when I asked Dylan how he remembered the lyrics to his wordy songs. "I wrote them, didn't I?" he retorted. On Tuesday, though, he might start a tune standing in center stage before retreating behind his upright piano and flipping through laminated pages of words that he penned not long ago.
The tousle-haired singer in white sport coat, black shirt and black pants seemed happy to be back on stage. He struck goofy rock-star poses and did a playful mock dance like an aging song-and-dance man.
After a 23-month break from live concerts, Dylan apparently has put an end to his mythic Never Ending Tour, which featured 3,066 concerts between 1988 and 2019. He has dubbed this the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour 2021-2024.
In his first live gig since turning 80, the bard from Minnesota's North Country didn't want to live in his ancient past. More than half of the 18 songs he performed Tuesday were from modern times, with three apiece from the 1960s and '70s and one from the '90s, plus a pleasing cover of the standard "Melancholy Mood."
Meet the new Bob, same as the old Bob. Still a masterful writer, he remains an acquired-taste singer to whom you must listen carefully, and an uncompromising artist who continues to challenge himself and his followers.
Backed by a quintet featuring two new members — guitarist Doug Lancio and drummer Charley Drayton, both well traveled veterans — Dylan opened with the oldies "Watching the River Flow" and "Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)" in arrangements reminiscent of those heard in the stagey concert he streamed in July, "Shadow Kingdom."
Then came two gems from "Rough and Rowdy Ways" — the crowd-sparking "I Contain Multitudes" and the hesitant blues "False Prophet," numbers that could be interpreted as autobiographical or just social commentaries. Dylanologists, please discuss amongst yourselves.
Of the new selections, the Frankensteinish "My Own Version of You" had an eerie Halloween vibe, "Black Rider" was swathed in Tex-Mex mystery and "Mother of Muses" echoed with hymn-like reverence. "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You" found an emphatic Dylan holding his notes, and "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)" was a transfixing 10-minute meditation that seemed as unlikely to be heard in concert as "Murder Most Foul," the new album's 17-minute political-and-pop-culture marathon.
Some oldies were reimagined to diminished effect. "Gotta Serve Somebody" become a chugging boogie; a slowed-down "Early Roman Kings" eschewed its usual blues sting, and "Love Sick" shed its menacing aura.
Dylan's face was often animated, his eyes widening and eyebrows raised as he punched words, his index fingers pointing to underscore his lyrics. His diction was clear, his phrasing purposeful, his voice occasionally harsh (no one at a Dylan concert expects a polished crooner).
Neither his piano playing nor harmonica work was especially noteworthy. He didn't give many solo opportunities to his sidemen. When guitarist Bob Britt was featured, it was difficult to see him, situated behind Dylan's piano. By contrast, it was easy to appreciate the superb drumming of Drayton, who was positioned to the side of his bandmates rather than in the customary back of the bandstand.
For someone who rarely speaks in concert, Dylan surprisingly twice thanked the crowd of 2,450 appreciative fans, introduced his band members and — after turning to longtime bandleader/bassist Tony Garnier to check the name — he dedicated the show to the late Les Paul, the electric guitar pioneer from suburban Milwaukee.
At times during the 100-minute gig, Dylan seemed unsure on his feet, gripping the top of his piano as he moseyed around the compact, no-frills stage. But his performance couldn't have been surer or more reassuring.
Twitter: @JonBream 612-673-1719
Watching the River Flow
Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)
I Contain Multitudes
Simple Twist of Fate
My Own Version of You
I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
Mother of Muses
Gotta Serve Somebody
Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
Early Roman Kings
Soon After Midnight
I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You
Goodbye Jimmy Reed
(encore) Love Sick
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry