Let's cut to the chase.
Yes, Bob Dylan skipped a lot of his signature songs during his two-hour show Wednesday at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, as usual. No, you couldn't always immediately discern the melodies or lyrics of those he did play, especially early on before the sound mix clicked into focus, as usual. Yes, he dispensed with such rock-star pleasantries as "Hello, California!" and pretty much all between-song chatter, and yes, he concentrated as much on what he's done in the last 10 years as what he did in the first 10. As usual.
And yes, all that added up to an unusually compelling night of music -- as usual.
How does he do it?
By treating his astonishingly deep catalog like a painter's palette. He starts each night with the same array of colors at his disposal, but applies and combines them with inspiration of the moment and lets the emerging moods and images guide each creation to its unique conclusion.
The 67-year-old erstwhile spokesman for a generation -- the voice-over preceding his arrival noted that factoid in a witty, 30-second summation of a 46-year recording career -- has been starting his shows lately with two or three songs from the '60s. He stuck to that blueprint in Santa Monica, opening with a driving "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," whose singalong-ready refrain ("Everybody must get stoned") was taken literally by a smattering of concertgoers.
As he did during much of the evening, Dylan zeroed in on a single-note reduction of his original melody -- just as Louis Armstrong's solos became outwardly less complex later in his life as he searched to find one perfect note rather than settling for dozens of less-than-ideal ones.
He moved on to a pulsing R&B; treatment of "It Ain't Me Babe." The newly sensualized rhythms flummoxed fans' attempts to shift into autopilot while chanting the rigid old folkified version.
Jerry Wexler, the late Atlantic Records exec who produced the "Slow Train Coming" album in 1979, recalled Dylan telling him at the time: "I've done the word trip. Now I want to do the music trip." With mighty backing from his blues- and R&B-savvy; five-man band, Dylan continues to revel in "the music trip," dispatching lyrics in bloody chunks like CNN news-crawl bulletins.
For the record, Dylan didn't offer up any comment on the Republican National Convention in progress half a country away in his native Minnesota -- unless you're the cynical type who suspects that his inclusion of "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" might have been politically motivated. But since he also played that song at a tour stop last week in Tulsa, Okla., while the Dems were hosting their bash in Denver, let's chalk that one up to musical prerogative.
Those who prized his songs only for their expansive lyrics always struggled with the shift he told Wexler he wanted to make, but it's one that still seemed germane another three decades down the road Dylan has charted for himself. Music goes places words can't, and even a writer as universally lauded as Dylan knows it, as he sang in "Mississippi": "All my powers of expression and words so sublime/Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme."
Outfitted in a gaucho-inspired suit and flat-brimmed black hat, Dylan could as well have had his boot-heels nailed to the floor below the keyboard he stayed anchored to all night.
The atmospheric lighting kept him largely in shadows, but he was far more than a one-dimensional, specter-like figure. He frequently punctuated his songs by bobbing and weaving, every now and then casting a sly-man's smile toward the crowd as if he'd just walked out of "The Dark Knight," taunting the audience with his own version of the question, "Why so serious?"
In one of his earliest songs, "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)," he sang, "Now something has changed/She ain't the same," one of many compositions in which he's less interested in the state of the world than in how it can be transformed. A few minutes earlier he'd played "Things Have Changed," a latter-day song that places that idea front and center: "I used to care," he proclaimed, then let loose another of those wicked smiles, "but things have changed."
If there's one constant in the ever-shifting sands of the pop music world, it's that Bob Dylan will change. As usual.