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Live review: Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Palladium

October 14, 2009 |  2:21 pm

He ignores songs from his new album -- that's nothing new. Neither is his attempt to define himself through his changing set list.

Bob Dylan opened his three-night stand Tuesday at the Hollywood Palladium, essentially in the backyard of his Malibu residence, on the same day his latest studio album was released. How many songs did he play from the new collection for the hometown crowd? Zip. Nada. Zilch.

That's not a huge surprise given that the album happens to be “Christmas in the Heart,” his first holiday collection. Mid-October feels a little early to be dipping into the seasonal songbook -- even assuming Dylan would ever offer up "Must Be Santa," "Here Comes Santa Claus" or other chestnuts from the Christmas set in his live act.

The fact is, he's bypassed other new albums in concert before. Two decades ago he came through town just after "Oh Mercy" was released, but you never would have known it from his concert set list. The salient point being that the word "promotion" seems to be the one entry in the English language missing from his otherwise unabridged dictionary.

Instead, Dylan seems to treat the song selection at each night's performance as something of cabalistic ritual, a mystical exercise in which something transcendent might emerge from the proper sequence and combination of thoughts, sounds, notes and rhythms on a given evening.

On a new tour swing that opened last week in Seattle, several cornerstone numbers have appeared nearly every night. From the early years, he's relying regularly on "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." Then there are linchpin songs from his most recent studio releases, including "Cold Irons Bound," "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," "My Wife's Home Town," "High Water (for Charley Patton)," "Thunder on the Mountain" and "Jolene."

Together, those songs constitute about two-thirds of the show, the other third consisting of wild cards that shift dramatically from night to night.

It might well be Dylan's way of emphasizing who he is right now -- the face the artist always had been most interested in sharing -- while offering enough of a reminder of who he used to be to keep hits-conscious fans from staging an uprising.

On Tuesday, following a spirited 40-minute set by an impossibly ageless-looking and sounding Johnny Rivers, Dylan also weaved in "Shooting Star" from "Oh Mercy" and "Nettie Moore" from 2006's "Modern Times," songs separated by nearly two decades that look differently on romances of yore.

"Shooting Star" savors the sweetness of what once was, while "Nettie Moore" becomes immersed in the loss: "I loved you then and ever shall/But there's no one here that's left to tell/The world has gone black before my eyes."

His sly sense of humor came through in subtle ways. "My Wife's Home Town," from "Together Through Life" is savagely funny on its own -- the hometown in question is Hell -- but segueing directly from that wicked sentiment into "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" added extra sting to that bluesy lament from the mid-'60s.

Many of the "Together Through Life" songs are rooted in the blues, a form his five-piece band excels at. Guitarist Charlie Sexton, who had been in Dylan's touring band nearly a decade ago, has returned to the fold and reeled out some fat rhythm support and a couple of nicely stinging solos. Drummer George Recile supplied much of the instrumental magic on several numbers with consistently surprising rhythmic accents that kept the musical train jumping.

And even though the momentum built inexorably toward the powerful finale combination that included "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower," Dylan again defied any attempts for singalongs with his off-kilter phrasing of his signature tunes.

He piled the words in the verses of "Rolling Stone" into the front half of each measure, then allowed for a pregnant pause before dropping the last few words in behind the beat at the end of the musical phrase. It's as if he was going through that old enunciation exercise where you repeat a sentence multiple times, putting the accent on a different word with each repetition to see how it changes the emphasis in meaning.

Meanwhile, from his station at the keyboard, he pounded out descending notes during "Watchtower" that created the impression of soldiers marching down a castle staircase on the way to carrying out their duties. The band filled out the arrangement with a suitably thick, thunderous accompaniment.

Who needs Christmas carols anyway?