BERLIN — Nearly 40 years after he wrote the lyric “He not busy being born is busy dying,” Bob Dylan clearly still believes that estimation is right on the mark.
Looking snazzy in a black cowboy hat and old-school Western suit, the 60-year-old folk-rock icon was tireless, fearless and masterful throughout his 140-minute show Thursday at the Arena. Within shouting range of Treptow Park, where he played in 1987 when the area was still communist East Germany, the Arena is a onetime bus depot and hangar that now serves as one of the city’s largest music venues.
The 7,500-capacity, standing-room-only space served Dylan well, its acoustics keeping his grizzly voice — and the 100 miles of rough road it carries — right out front where it belongs. The singer deserves most of the credit, however, especially since he opts to enunciate these days instead of mumbling along as he’s sometimes done in the past.
The former Robert Allen Zimmerman and his band weren’t onstage more than five seconds before he proclaimed, “I Am the Man, Thomas,” covering the old Stanley Brothers bluegrass number. Never mind the 43 albums of his own material he had to choose from — this was the statement Dylan chose to launch with, and though it wasn’t really his song, the man made it all his own.
Although shy with new material, Dylan relished in the songs from the Grammy-winning Love and Theft, released in September. He kicked, wiggled and eventually dropped to his knees during the encore rendition of “Honest With Me,” while seizing the chance to do some lead guitar noodling on “Lonesome Day Blues,” only to later conclude in the song’s final verse, “You can’t make love all by yourself.”
He approached “Summer Days” as though it were pure fun in the sun, at one point lifting his guitar away from his abdomen to show off a Chubby Checker-like twist. For the Western romp’s raucous finale, Dylan stepped back from the mic and nestled in with his bandmembers to jam. Relieved of the spotlight, he embraced the opportunity to just be a player in the band. He and the musicians exchanged glances like card partners anticipating each other’s next move, but they couldn’t hold their poker faces for long. With the game so clearly belonging to them, they couldn’t help but grin.
It was the highlight of the show for fan Franz Zaborowski, who since 1981 has seen Dylan perform live more than 100 times and who drove across the country to catch Thursday’s show. “I loved the joy in their playing,” he said.
Dylan’s satisfaction with his band — guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper — was obvious. When he glanced back, it was invariably with a look of pride, not scrutiny. The only time he bothered to speak to the crowd was to introduce the band, toward the end of a powerful rendition of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
During “Solid Rock,” Dylan again showed how much fun he’s having this time around. Twitching his leg like he could hardly handle his excitement and shaking his head back and forth in time, Dylan appeared fully engrossed in the music. But he wasn’t so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the women’s red undergarment thrown onstage, a perfectly solid rock gesture.
While the only other excerpt from Love and Theft was “Moonlight,” Dylan was thinner on material from 1998’s career-revitalizing Time Out of Mind, playing only the album’s futile cry to give romance the permanent boot, “Love Sick.”
But he remained true to his reputation for making new material out of his old, deconstructing and rebuilding such classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” in unexpected ways. Judging from the suspended cheers, audience members were sometimes so thrown off by the new arrangements and Dylan’s modified vocals that they didn’t recognize the tune until the chorus. Like several songs during the concert, “Times” began with Dylan playing harmonica and careening through unlikely twists and turns before slowly morphing into a familiar melody. He took the same approach for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which, with its subtle beauty, proved to be one of the night’s most chilling moments. On the opposite extreme, an explosive rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” brought a midshow climax, leaving the crowd reeling for several minutes.
Among the rare treats were a vivacious cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and a strange but genius interweaving of “Visions of Johanna” and “Masters of War.” Though his set lists often differ drastically from night to night, classics like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” have been fairly standard encores on this tour. During the chorus of “Rolling Stone,” the stage lights flooded the crowd so Dylan could look directly into his fans’ lit-up faces as if he genuinely wanted to know “How does it feel?”
Perhaps the strongest and most collective applause of the night came in the midst of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” when Dylan sang, “How many years can some people exist/ Before they’re allowed to be free?” A boom of cheers erupted from a crowd that included many who have known great oppression.
For the first time since the tour kicked off in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 5, Dylan and company returned for a second encore, choosing “Highway 61 Revisited.” Appearing just as lively as he did when he first took the stage more than two hours before, the old codger ended the show driving home the same point he started off with. Yep, Thomas, he is the man.
Read about all of the shows we’ve recently covered in Tour Reports.