LEWISTON – A gleaming black grand piano and mic stand, under a wash of golden light and amid an array of more usual tools of the rock trade, stood waiting for human intervention. A lone, mournful guitar signaled the beginning of the set of Bob Dylan and band at Artpark on Thursday night, a stop on The Never Ending Tour.
The besuited band hit the stage. The nearly sold-out crowd, sighting Dylan (strutting in black suit with white embellishments and his signature white pork pie hat), roared and rose – the first of several ovations by the rapt audience of impressive age span.
The crowd was hippies, couples of various ages, and long-running Dylan fans there with their kids.
Dylan’s last two recordings, Shadows in the Night (2015) and Fallen Angels (2016), have made well-curated and decades-old standards new again. Burnished with his earthy growls and respectful retoolings, songs originally recorded by crooner Frank Sinatra are melted into more Delta Blues than Vegas. Half of the songs off “Tempest,” his masterful 2012 recording, including ultra-intense “Pay in Blood,” made the Artpark playlist.
“Things Have Changed” Dylan’s 2000 Oscar-winning tune with its refrain “people are crazy and times are strange,” was a perfect opener for these current turbulent times.
Lush and deep country “She Belongs to Me” of 60’s vintage was next; it would be a few bars in before the audience deciphered one of rock’s best lyrics of love: the enviable couplet “she can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black.” On harmonica Dylan’s soaring parts were enveloped in drum punches and guitar wails.
That grand piano would be featured prominently in another love song, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” and later for magnificently throbbing “Duquesne Whistle,” a song co-written by Dylan and equally-prolific lyricist/musician Robert Hunter.
The first of his two sets ended with another reconfigured classic, “Tangled Up in Blue.” It would again take a moment before audience members heard – and rejoiced – in the lyrics in their new phrasing.
The incredible and equally long-running Mavis Staples was first on the Artpark stage, warming up the crowd with gospel love and R&B grooves. She would begin and end her concise set with Stax classics she first performed with her family members, The Staple Singers – “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me), “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”
Also an artist who, with crackerjack band, deftly chooses cover tunes, Staples performed an excellent rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”
“It’s a good evening,” Staples said, “It’s our very first time to visit you, it is. I don’t know why that happened, why it’s our first time because we’ve been around a long time. Shucks!”
Staples and Dylan, longtime associates, have covered each other’s songs over the course of their careers. Staples, midway in her set spoke of Dylan: “I really love watching him move. He got this thing he do with his shoulders, he got this swag. Go Bobby!”
Set-closing “I’ll Take You There” had audience members singing the refrain before Staples received a deserved standing ovation, blowing kisses to the audience.