Most recording artists need new albums or MTV appearances to help plug their live dates, but Bob Dylan has his own personal army of promotion men that keeps his name in front of us.
Whether it’s U2 and Bruce Springsteen or such exciting young talents as the White Stripes’ Jack White and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, there are constant reminders, by Dylan’s influence on these artists’ work, of the importance of the man who revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll songwriting in the ‘60s.
So, it’s all the more exhilarating when Dylan demonstrates that he can still deliver music with as much vitality and passion as any of those descendants -- and that’s what he did Tuesday in a two-hour concert blessed with both thrilling music and a generous spirit.
In the process, the veteran proved the ideal act to reopen the historic Wiltern Theatre after a $1.5-million makeover.
For those who enjoyed the sedate nature of the 71-year-old Wiltern, it was unsettling last spring to learn that the theater seats on the main floor were going to be ripped out. But the freedom of fans to move about in the resulting open space contributed Tuesday to an energy and intensity level in the room that wasn’t possible before.
The ornate beauty of the building, which was declared a historic-cultural monument by the city in 1973, has been preserved, and the sound remains superior. For fans who prefer to sit, the balcony seats remain.
Dylan has gone through a rejuvenating process himself. After years of artistic drift, he regained his purpose in the late ‘90s -- first songwriting in “Time Out of Mind,” the stark, Grammy-winning 1997 CD, and the sheer love of musicmaking in “Love and Theft,” his equally memorable 2001 album.
Whether cruising through the exuberant jump-blues of “Summer Days” or the stinging, guitar-driven “Honest With Me,” Dylan exhibited a new freedom and openness on “Love and Theft,” and he brought both qualities to the stage Tuesday.
Although he slipped in some acoustic numbers (including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and an especially reflective “I Shall Be Released”), the emphasis was on whiplash urgency. Dylan, who normally restricts himself to guitar, played electric piano on several numbers.
Wearing a black jacket and pants, both striped in red, Dylan stood at the keyboard with a gunslinger’s swagger as he led his well-drilled band through some of his own musical back pages (“Tombstone Blues,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) and songs from other writers.
The latter ranged from Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby’s absorbing “The End of the Innocence,” a well-timed choice in light of the anxious geopolitics of this age, to Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” -- a sweet sign of affection and respect for the acclaimed singer-songwriter, who is suffering from a terminal illness.
The most surprising choice was the Rolling Stones’ lustful “Brown Sugar,” so dynamic that you’d have sworn Keith Richards himself had sneaked on stage to deliver a few guitar licks.
Then again, Dylan’s band is such a versatile and explosive unit that it seems capable of following its leader anywhere. Guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper aren’t just sidemen, they’re cohorts.
Dylan will always be known primarily as a man of words, but he put such passion and joy into the playing that the show took on an added, cleansing edge.
By the end, the audience’s mood was jubilant -- not just in awe of an artist’s legacy, but of his ability on this night to touch us so gloriously anew.
Bob Dylan plays tonight at 7:30 at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Sold out. (213) 380-5005.
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The set list
Bob Dylan’s song selection varies greatly night to night; here’s Tuesday’s:
“Seeing the Real You at Last”
“Tell Me That It Isn’t True”
“The End of the Innocence”
“Things Have Changed”
“One Too Many Mornings”
“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
“I Shall Be Released”
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
“Honest With Me”
“Mr. Tambourine Man”
“High Water (For Charley Patton)”
“Floater (Too Much to Ask)”
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
“All Along the Watchtower”