Bob Dylan has always confounded his fans – whether going electric in 1965 when people wanted him to be folk or unexpectedly embracing Christian fervor on three albums in the late 1970s.
Dylan last played the Palace Theatre over two nights in 1980, during the height of his Born-again period. Earlier this month, the enigmatic singer-songwriter released a boxset called Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981, which revisits that gospel stage.
Little from that Scripture-quoting phase made the set when Dylan returned to the Palace on Friday night with his mysterious, finely tuned band and his special guest: soul-powerhouse Mavis Staples.
But his performance was no less confounding at times, with the 76-year-old – who looked sharp in black striped tuxedo pants and a white jacket – shuffling to the center of the stage to sing lounge-singer-style some of the covers of traditional pop standards that appear on his three most recent studio albums.
It was all very Twin Peaks-ish at times, recalling the swanky yet bizarre atmosphere of the Roadhouse bar on David Lynch's mind-blowing television series. In front of elegant burnt-orange velvet drapes, Dylan stood bow-legged, crooning into the microphone on songs like the sentimental “Once Upon a Time,” popularized by Tony Bennett, and the slinky “Melancholy Mood” by Frank Sinatra.
The rest of the time he was at the piano, a golden halo of light shining off his frizzy mane of hair as he performed wildly rearranged versions of classics like “Highway 61 Revisited,” “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Seeing Dylan live is no nostalgia act; he shuffles his songs into new forms that are often nearly unrecognizable. He doesn’t make it easy – it’s a cerebral challenge, both for him and for fans.
But anyone who goes to see Dylan these days largely knows what they are getting, and the packed crowd was very respectful and attentive, even as Palace staff policed the aisles, shutting down anyone who tried to turn on a phone (a requirement of the artist they said).
His five-piece band, dressed all in black and featuring lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, was an ever-tasteful, cracking unit that could deftly shift from toe-tapping country swing on “Summer Days” to fiery blues on “Early Roman Kings” to deep, dark noir on “Love Sick.”
Highlights of the night included “Desolation Row” and the set-closing “Ballad of a Thin Man,” rearranged like the rest but no less devastating.
A standing ovation concluded the opening set by 78-year-old soul legend and Civil Rights icon Mavis Staples, who released her latest album, “If All I Was Was Black,” earlier that day.
Staples had earned that rapturous applause with a set meant to uplift. “We came this evening to bring you some joy. Some happiness. And some positive vibrations. We want you to feel good,” she said on stage.
Staples turned down a marriage proposal from Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, she told interviewers last year. Their romantic relationship wasn’t meant to be, but they stayed longtime friends.
Her presence on stage brought the promised joy and positivity, her voice still sounding incredible on Staple Singers’ classics like “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” and “I'll Take You There” as well as “Build a Bridge” from her new album.