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In Bob Dylan’s opening set at Desert Trip, classics get preferential treatment over contemporary songs

Bob Dylan plays the opening set at Desert Trip in Indio last Friday night.
Bob Dylan plays the opening set at Desert Trip in Indio last Friday night.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times )

Yes, Bob Dylan’s a contrarian, a trait he’s confirmed concert after concert, year after year for most of his life. 

But he’s not crazy. So for the opening performance of Desert Trip in Indio on Friday, he prudently left the Great American Songbook that he’s been exploring extensively on his recent tours in his trailer and focused on the deep body of songs from his own repertoire.

Out of the gate, it looked like he might indeed indulge the audience’s reflexive inclinations for hits. He offered a set that opened with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with fans from various generations chiming in on its woozy chorus: “Everybody must get stoned!”

From there, he kept to the straight-and-narrow with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Still, his craggy voice and ever idiosyncratic phrasing, pushing lyrics to the finish line early, and drawing out others leisurely, surely had some in the crowd of 75,000 playing “Name That Tune,” at least during the first few moments of each.

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Following that opening salvo of Dylan chestnuts, he moved into more recent material, turning with meteorological relevance to “High Water (for Charley Patton),” topical as a killer hurricane wended its way up the southeastern coast of the U.S. Dylan sang, “It’s tough out there/High water everywhere.”

As he moved away from the best-known songs of yore, the crowd largely sank into indifference, applauding politely following more contemporary choices, including “Pay in Blood” (with its killer closing line “I’ll pay in blood/But not my own”), “Early Roman Kings” and the spiteful “Love Sick.”

Nevertheless, the timelessness and power of his metaphor-laden lyrics make them seem ever relevant, no matter the political climate or social setting. That made Dylan’s choice of “Masters of War” as his sole encore number to close out an 80-minute set feel as contemporary as Saturday morning’s Twitter news feed: “You that never done nothin’/But build to destroy/You play with my world/Like it’s your little toy.”

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He took the stage with no fanfare and left without speaking a word — to the band or the crowd — ceding any celebratory spirit to others on this weekend’s bill.

Curiously, while his image was carried over the massive video screens for the first few numbers, for the majority of his set, the screens displayed vintage black-and-white film footage of city scenes, nature shots and other relatively random images.

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