Bob Dylan Oct. 27 at Sears Centre

I’d seen four Bob Dylan concerts before this one… which means I’m still a greenhorn compared to most Dylan fans. When I went to my Dylan show (a double bill with Joni Mitchell at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto around 1999), I was blown away — and I immediately regretted having waited so long before catching Dylan in concert. He was so passionate that night, and I was especially impressed by how much fun he seemed to be having playing the guitar, even taking solos on the electric guitar, not something he was famous for.

The next time I saw him was in 2001 at the United Center in Chicago, just after he’d released Love and Theft. Once again, he put on a fantastic show.

I was a little disappointed when I saw him on back-to-back nights in May 2004, one night at the Aragon and one at the Riveria. This was around the time he first switched from playing guitar to keyboards, for reasons that are still a little mysterious. Maybe the rumors are true that he can’t play guitar well enough any longer for physical reasons, or at least well enough to satisfy himself. Or maybe it’s just another one of his engimatic whims. Whatever the reasons, I found those 2004 shows a little lacking. Certainly worth attending, but not up to the standards of the previous concerts I’d seen.

Dylan’s still doing the keyboard thing, but he seems more comfortable with it now. Dylan seems to be stepping back a bit from the spotlight that normally shines on the singer at the front of a band, preferring instead to stand amid the other musicians.

Instead of facing the audience, he stands in profile, singing into a microphone at his side. Dressed in a black cowboy hat and a matching suit, Dylan leaned forward into the keyboard with his knees half-bent, swaying to the beat.

His voice, which was never an instrument of conventional musical beauty, has constricted down to a hoarse croak of limited range. At times, he sounded like a man in bad need of a lozenge. But the creaks in Dylan’s voice also add a feeling of authenticity to his songs, and he has learned ways of softly crooning some of the higher notes, especially on the tunes from Modern Times.

Dylan’s other voice is his harmonica, and he turned to the instrument several times Friday night for some nice solos. His keyboard playing had been almost inaudible on earlier tours, but it could be heard at many points Friday night. The keyboards were usually set to a sound resembling a skating-rink organ. Dylan’s playing was particularly effective when he echoed the guitar licks in “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Changing several songs from the set lists he had been playing a week earlier in California, Dylan opened with a couple of his signature 1960s tunes, a bluesy version of “Leonard-Skin Pillbox Hat” and a full-band arrangement of “The Times They Are-A Changin’” that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on his new record.

Dylan’s backup musicians, attired in hats and suits that made them look like a gang of gentlemen bandits, were nimble, mostly playing rollicking bluesy grooves but also switching to quieter string-band arrangements when the songs called for it.

Fans can count on Dylan digging into his back catalogue for at least one lesser-known track, and on Friday night, it was “Boots of Spanish Leather” from the 1964 album The Times They Are-A Changin’.

For his encore, Dylan and his band played “Thunder on the Mountain,” the opening track of Modern Times, with both the guitars and Dylan’s voice sounding vigorous. He followed that with a somewhat perfunctory “Like a Rolling Stone” and a stirring version of “All Along the Watcher” that divided up the vocal lines into an almost reggae-like pattern.

Overall, it was a great performance, not quite as good as the Dylan concerts I saw in 1999 and 2001 — but those both rank among the best shows I’ve ever seen by anyone.

This was only the second concert at the new Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, following Duran Duran the previous night. It’s a minor-league sports stadium just a short distance from the very spot where Poplar Creek used to be — the place where I saw my first rock concerts as a high-school kid in the early 1980s, including Eric Clapton, the Animals and Dire Straits. Sears Centre will be the home to soccer, football, hockey and lacrosse teams.

The 11,800 seats were maybe half-full for Dylan, which was a shame… Maybe the ticket prices were too high. Mine was free, thanks to the fact that I was reviewing the concert for the Daily Southtown, but it would have been a steep $77 otherwise.

It’s an antiseptic arena sort of venue — lacking in character, but pretty much what you’d expect. The sound was good, with very clear acoustics and none of the reverberations often heard when rock bands play inside sports arenas. The mix allowed Dylan’s voice to be heard distinctly amid all of the other sounds.

While the Dylan show used little in the way of theatrical effects, Sears Centre showed what it’s capable of with an impressive if stereotypical light show during the opening set by Southern rockers Kings of Leon. The younger Dylan fans appeared to appreciate that group’s loud 1970s-influenced music, and even a few of the older fans could be seen nodding their heads to the rhythm.

Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat
The Times They Are-A Changin’
Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
High Water (for Charley Patton)
Boots of Spanish Leather
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
Love Sick
Highway 61 Revisited
When the Deal Goes Down
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Workingman’s Blues #2
Tangled Up in Blue
Summer Days
Thunder on the Mountain
Like a Rolling Stone
All Along the Watchtower

I did not have my camera with me for this concert … so the best I can manage for visual representations of Bob Dylan is this quick pen sketch I drew in the dark…