It was a sight even the most devoted Bob Dylan fans likely never thought they’d see: An enormous video screen on the Las Vegas Strip congratulating the 75-year-old songwriter for winning the Nobel Prize mere hours before.
Beneath the sign, near the glittering Cosmopolitan casino where Dylan played Thursday night, Sin City swirled with its usual business.
Tourists sipped drinks from brightly colored novelty containers. A guy hawked helicopter rides to the Grand Canyon. And countless other screens advertised shows by countless other entertainers.
Dylan plays Vegas pretty regularly — the hard-touring veteran plays everywhere pretty regularly — but this gig was anything but ordinary.
Though obviously scheduled far in advance, the concert wound up serving as his first public appearance as a brand-new Nobel laureate, the first musician to win what might be culture’s highest honor.
And inside the mid-sized ballroom you could tell he was pumped.
Not that he said anything, of course. True to his sphinx-like nature, Dylan declined to acknowledge the billboard or its sentiments.
But as he played the tunes that inspired the Nobel committee’s praise of a career that “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” Dylan had some undeniable pep in his step.
The capacity crowd gave him a standing ovation as he sauntered onstage at 8 p.m. sharp wearing a loose, light-gray tuxedo with a bolo tie. And fans stood again when he finished his opener, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” one of several classics from the 1960s that he performed along with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
Between each song, Dylan paused just a beat or two longer than he typically does — longer, for instance, than he did at last weekend’s Desert Trip festival in Indio — as though he were considering saying something about receiving the accolade previously bestowed on the likes of William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison.
Or maybe he would deliver an epic monologue similar to the one he unloaded in 2015 when the MusiCares organization recognized him for his philanthropy.
Instead, Dylan expressed his feelings in the very fashion that led some high-profile literary types to complain he didn’t deserve the Nobel — as a singer, a pianist, a guy still capable of holding a microphone stand at just the right matinee-idol angle.
It was a performance as joyous and physical as any I’ve seen him give, a poet making full use of every possibility off the page.
And the crowd, as they say, went wild.
“I tweeted earlier ‘I’m going to see Bob Dylan tonight in Las Vegas,’ and people I don’t even know responded saying today is one of the most iconic concerts in his life,” Joe Famalette, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles, told me after the show. “And he was jamming! The first thing I thought when he came out was, ‘He has some swag.’”
Given his signature scorn for high society, there was something very Dylan about him playing Vegas — a town happily steeped in sleaze — the day the Nobel was announced.
Early Thursday, the concert wasn’t even sold out, to my mind less a sign of Dylan’s waning popularity than a symptom of his perpetually on-the-road ways. His show, after all, is known as the Never Ending Tour — not exactly a warning to buy tickets while you still can.
By showtime, though, a hotel representative said all tickets were gone. And, as the billboard made clear, the Cosmopolitan was proud to have lucked into the timely booking.
“We’ve had 57 Grammy Award-winning artists and 121 nominees, but Bob Dylan is the first Nobel Prize winner to perform” at the hotel, a Cosmopolitan executive said in a statement. He added that they were “thrilled” to host him “on this momentous night.”
The audience was a blend of casual vacationers and hardcore Dylan heads — both groups generally gray-haired — along with a handful of slickly attired young people who looked like they’d gotten lost on the way to a DJ gig at Hakkasan.
In the venue lobby, many folks discussed the singer’s award, including Richard Wilsher of Huntington Beach, who’d come with his wife, Patsi, to see Dylan.
“I think it’s somewhat late,” Wilsher said of Dylan’s being recognized. “He’s been at it his whole life.”
Wilsher praised the songwriter’s ability to interpret current events in his lyrics but said his singing left something to be desired.
“I mean, he’s got character in his voice, but if he sang, I don’t know, ‘The Sound of Music,’ it would count for nothing,” he said. “He’d just be some scratchy old fart singing a piece of crap. But it’s Bob Dylan singing his own words.”
Not everyone at the show knew Dylan had joined an elite set of literary giants. John Moreland, visiting from his home in New York, said he hadn’t heard the news.
“I just like his style,” he said of the singer.
As chuffed as Dylan’s performance suggested he was, Moreland’s position probably would have pleased him.
More than anyone in his peer group, Dylan has always resisted the idea of belonging to a peer group. Indeed, at Desert Trip — due to repeat this weekend with Dylan, the Rolling Stones and other formative classic rock acts — he seemed turned off by the festival’s implicit canonizing approach.
His set in Indio had a pronounced mean streak that felt like a willful affront to anyone seeking the baby-boomer nostalgia Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney were happy to dole out.
Yet on his own in Las Vegas, absolved from the responsibility of upholding some collective legacy, Dylan was ebullient. Even songs about death and disloyalty that had sounded awesomely severe a week prior — I’m thinking of “Pay in Blood,” “Desolation Row,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” — had a lighter-than-air quality here, with Dylan venturing up into his high register, his crack five-man band supporting his vocals with dreamy chamber-folk textures.
And his moves! Here was a guy who knew how to get some serious mileage out of bending his knees, or shuffling over to his piano, or merely standing in place and opening his arms ever so slightly.
But this wasn’t all the product of escaping self-important Desert Trip for a low-key one-nighter in Vegas.
Over the summer, I caught Dylan’s show at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., and he was nowhere near as buoyant, which suggests that the Nobel hit home in a way his Grammys, his Pulitzer and even his Presidential Medal of Freedom didn’t.
He ended Thursday’s show with a gorgeous rendition of “Why Try to Change Me Now,” one of the Sinatra-era standards he recorded for last year’s “Shadows in the Night” album. And it was tempting to hear that choice as some kind of not-so-secret message — a declaration, perhaps, that a worthy gatekeeper had finally recognized his way with words.
But then, those particular words aren’t really his.