Listening to Bob Dylan perform his classic songs is like ordering a breakfast burrito in Bombay.
There may be many of the same ingredients as you're used to tasting, but it's prepared so differently that it might as well be a completely different meal. And the question remains whether you're not so distracted by the differences that you can enjoy it on its own merits.
At the first of two shows at Overture Hall on Monday night, Dylan radically reworked some of his best-known tunes until they were almost unrecognizable, pulled some lesser-known chestnuts out of his catalog, and barely acknowledged the sold-out audience. In other words, it was a Bob Dylan show, and a strong one at that.
Putting Dylan in Overture Hall after years playing big, indifferent spaces like the Kohl Center, Marcus Amphitheatre and Warner Park proved to be a very smart idea. For the audience, the sound was much crisper than in those big sheds, the honkytonk country-rock arrangements carrying more weight and more kick.
And Dylan seemed much more engaged than he has in past shows; instead of staying chained to the keyboards as he did at his last two Madison gigs, he roamed from the guitar to the organ to the harmonica. There was a point during the raucous "Highway 61" when he and guitarist Charlie Sexton were hitting a groove together, Dylan bopping up and down as he stabbed away at the keyboard, when it suddenly became apparent; rock music's cranky old man was actually enjoying himself.
The show took a little while to get warmed up, with Dylan somewhat unapproachable playing "Cat's In the Well" and a ramshackle "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" on guitar. But with the ruminative "Things Have Changed" (off the "Wonder Boys" soundtrack), as Dylan's shadow loomed large behind him on the screen, he seemed to settle into the pocket more solidly.
The parched rasp of Dylan's late-period voice has grown pretty ill-suited to the tenderness of "Just Like A Woman." But when he stood, hand in pocket, and sang the opening lines of the epic "Tangled Up In Blue," it sounded magnificent, and the croak was used to haunting effect on the set-closing "Ballad of a Thin Man," Dylan looking eerie in the floor-lights.
One big reason that Monday's show was his strongest in Madison in a while was the reappearance of Sexton, who had been part of the line-up during Dylan's 2000 and 2001 shows. Sexton plays a clean, muscular guitar that played well off Dylan's keyboard, and added fire to the foot-stomping "The Levee's Gonna Break" and "Cold Irons Bound."
The encore include a glorious version of "Like a Rolling Stone" and a turbulent "All Along the Watchtower." At the end, Dylan gave the crowd a brisk tip of his hat, extended his arms briefly in thanks at the standing ovation raining down on him, and then quickly exited the stage.
At 69, Dylan is a lifetime away from the earnest young folkie heard on the recently released "Witmark Demos" CD. He has nothing to prove and, even if he's still a card-carrying curmudgeon, there are moments where the liberation he feels onstage is palpable.