Bob Dylan: The Tunes They Are a-Changin'

By Joe Heim
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 16, 2005; Page C08

Bob Dylan seems to enjoy keeping his fans guessing, particularly when it comes to his song choices. In concert, America's greatest songwriter is notorious for so altering the arrangement of his material that even devotees are reduced to playing name that tune. That raspy, at times barely intelligible delivery can leave fans wondering if they just heard "Blowin' in the Wind" or the theme song from "The Muppet Show."

On Tuesday night at Prince George's Stadium, where he shared the bill with Willie Nelson, the 64-year-old Dylan was in fine confounding form. Wearing a rakish black cowboy hat and a black suit with red piping that made him look like a 19th-century Mexican cavalry officer, he began the show with a version of "Drifter's Escape" that veered far from the original. And in the nearly two-hour set that followed, he and his five-piece band reworked everything from "Highway 61 Revisited" to "This Wheel's on Fire" to "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again."

Bob Dylan shared the bill with Willie Nelson at Prince George's Stadium.
Bob Dylan shared the bill with Willie Nelson at Prince George's Stadium.
Aside from a quick "Thank you, friends," Dylan didn't address the crowd. But judging from the set list, war is on his mind. He may not like being labeled a protest singer, but it was hard not to hear anger in songs like "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)," "John Brown," the brutally sad tale of a returning soldier, or the seething "Masters of War." When, on the latter, he sang, "You fasten the triggers / For the others to fire / Then you set back and watch / When the death count gets higher," his voice sounded as cutting as it did when the song was first released 42 years ago.

As has become his wont in recent years, Dylan played only keyboards and harmonica, abandoning his guitar for reasons that have never been made clear. The keyboard-only approach isn't always satisfying, but it did provide the night's humorous highlight: a little between-songs tinkling that may have been Dylan's first public rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Earlier in the evening, Willie Nelson warmed up the crowd of several thousand with a 90-minute sampling from his sturdy catalogue of country hits. At 72, the waaaay laid-back Nelson doesn't sing his songs as much as he smooth-talks his way through them. His charming Texas drawl was the perfect accompaniment for such breezy classics as "Crazy" and "Georgia on My Mind." With backing from a seven-piece band that included two of his sons, he upped the rowdiness quotient for other songs, such as "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "Beer for My Horses."

Fans expecting Dylan and Nelson to perform at least a couple of songs together left disappointed. But the different natures of their sets -- Dylan's driven, focused and unrelenting, Nelson's carefree and relaxed -- perhaps indicates that a duet might not have worked that well, anyway.