Bob Dylan Live Review: Latest, and perhaps last, chapter of The Never Ending Tour comes to a masterful close

The penultimate night of the Rough And Rowdy Ways tour caps off one of the strongest stretches of Dylan’s live career.

Bob Dylan Hyde Park

by Peter Blackstock |
Updated on

Bob Dylan

ACL Live, Austin, Texas, April 5, 2024

Bob Dylan has had a long and fruitful relationship with audiences in Austin. Since playing one of his first shows with The Hawks here in September 1965, Dylan has played the Texas capital nearly two dozen times, culminating in a two-night stand here Friday and Saturday that concludes one of the most remarkably consistent stretches in Dylan’s concert history.

Contradicting his decades-long reputation as a mercurial and unpredictable performer, Dylan has delivered almost exactly the same 17-song set since November 2021, when he resumed touring after a nearly two-year pandemic break. 2020’s Rough And Rowdy Ways is the fulcrum: For more than 200 shows over the past three years, he’s played nine of the album’s ten songs, leaving off only the epic Murder Most Foul.

The rest of the show almost always includes the same back-catalogue selections, from openers Watching the River Flow and Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, to the closing Every Grain of Sand from 1981 Shot Of Love. At this point, die-hard fans know better than to expect his best-known songs: We may never again hear him trot out Like A Rolling Stone or Blowin’ In The Wind or Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. And that’s all right: We don’t expect a greatest-hits revue from the man who wrote “he who isn’t busy being born is busy dying.”

As such, Dylan shows of late are partly a matter of whether he pulls out a surprise in any given city. If he likes your town, you might get an extra song: Earlier this week in Louisiana, he added a couple of Hank Williams nuggets, playing Jambalaya in Lafayette April 2 and On The Banks Of The Old Pontchartrain in New Orleans April 1.

Tonight in Austin, we’re treated to Across The Borderline, a Ry Cooder/Jim Dickinson/John Hiatt song first recorded by Freddy Fender in 1982. The new addition to the set seemed to energize Dylan: It features arguably his strongest vocal performance of the night, and his mid-song piano solo is gorgeously lyrical.

The performance marked the first time Dylan has played the song this century. It was a staple of his 1986 tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers; he may well have brought it back this evening  because it’s the title track of a 1993 album by Austin legend Willie Nelson, with whom Dylan will be touring from June to September.

Those summer shows are part of Nelson’s annual Outlaw Tour, which also will feature Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, John Mellencamp, Billy Strings and others. The multi-artist bills almost certainly will require abbreviating the 100-minute sets Dylan has been playing since 2021; as such, this weekend’s Austin concerts may well bring an end to this Rough And Rowdy Ways phase of his Never Ending Tour.

Dylan’s band has changed slightly since his March 2022 appearance at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall. Longtime bassist Tony Garnier remains the anchor, with pedal steel/fiddle player Don Herron aboard for nearly two decades now. Nashville guitarist Doug Lancio replaced Austin ace Charlie Sexton when Dylan returned from the pandemic, teaming with fellow guitarist Bob Britt (who joined in 2019). Drummer Jerry Pentecost recently took over from Charley Drayton, who played the 2022 Austin show.

Tonight, the band flexes its muscles on occasion, but just as often they hold back to provide space for Dylan’s singing, which has been defying nature for quite some time. His voice, once a ravaged rasp that paled in comparison to his youthful glory years, somehow improved as Dylan reached senior-citizen status. Near the end of 1979’s Gotta Serve Somebody, his full-throated vamp sounds surprisingly like the ghost of David Bowie.

A late-set choice of Johnny Cash’s Big River, which Dylan first covered in the late 1990s and has played at most of his shows in the past month, finds the band digging into a deep rockabilly groove after Dylan’s jaunty piano kicks things off. A highlight from Rough And Rowdy Ways was the nine-minute meditation Key West (Philosopher Pirate), on which Lancio switched from acoustic to electric guitar for a more atmospheric wash of sound behind Dylan’s sprightly melodic piano runs that at times brings to mind, of all things, the theme song from the 1980s TV show Hill Street Blues.

And Dylan’s presentation of his older songs, once altered so drastically that even longtime fans couldn’t name the tune till it was half-over, has been reined in. Well-travelled numbers such as 1967’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and 1969’s To Be Alone With You still sound different from their recorded counterparts, but it’s less of a guessing-game now. (An exception: 1971’s When I Paint My Masterpiece, which has been reworked to where it uncannily resembles Irving Berlin’s 1920s classic Puttin’ on the Ritz.)

Dylan speaks not a word the entire night, though he acknowledges the crowd’s rapt attention at the end of the show by stepping out front for a few gracious bows. Then the lights go down, the band stroll off, and Bob Dylan’s 21st Austin concert comes to an end. Another full house at the 2,700-capacity theatre will greet him on Saturday night  — and then, what’s next? These past few years have seemed like smooth sailing for Dylan, which probably means it’s time to rock the boat.


Watching The River Flow

Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine

I Contain Multitudes

False Prophet

When I Paint My Masterpiece

Black Rider

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight

My Own Version Of You

Crossing The Rubicon

To Be Alone With You

Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

Gotta Serve Somebody

Across The Borderline

I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You

Big River

Mother Of Muses

Goodbye Jimmy Reed

Every Grain Of Sand

Main picture: Bob Dylan at London's Hyde Park 2019 (credit: Matthew Baker/Getty Images)

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