Legendary songsmith Bob Dylan delivered an energetic and enthusiastic performance on Friday night at Montreal’s Bell Centre to a near sell-out crowd. Displaying nothing short of a marketing coup, opening the show was guitar demi-god Mark Knopfler.
Though there is an obvious stylistic divergence between one of pop’s lyrical geniuses and one of rock’s most highly regarded fret-slingers, it was clear last night that these two titans share the same demographic breadth, and the thousands in attendance were treated to a relaxed evening of gem after gem.
Fronting a stellar seven-piece band full of jaw-dropping multi-instrumentalists, the aging Knopfler opened with What It Is and then Corned Beef City, a blues-driven mini-hit from his recent album. Following the first of countless guitar changes, Knopfler used an acoustic guitar to leads his compadres through the subdued bliss that is Privateering.
Not to be outdone, Knopfler’s bandmates did their fair share of instrument changes throughout the hour-long set. Bouzouki, aeolian pipes, fiddle, accordion, Celtic whistle; the instrumentation on the stage ran the gamut of the world’s greatest kitchen party.
While the audience showed their appreciation at every turn, it was hard for me to imagine from the second row how the show was traveling to the back of the house. While the playing and the arrangements were exquisite the energy was reserved at best. Even when Knopfler stepped up and wrapped his huge fingers around one of his signature tasty guitar solos the focus was on subtlety of tone over the manic beauty that some might have been hoping for a la Sultans Of Swing, a piece that was left out of last night’s set list.
Closing his set with the only foray into Dire Straits material, So Far Away was the obvious fan favorite. With the standing crowd swaying to every repeated chorus it’s clear Mark Knopfler has entered his easy-listening years, but his ability to weave absolute magic out of a pentatonic minor scale will keep the seats filled for a long while to come.
After a brief changeover that included a stagehand scattering several large mirrors around the stage, the lights went down to introduce the evening’s highly anticipated headliner. Bob Dylan took his place near center stage and led his crackerjack band through the promising opener I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. With nary a guitar in sight, Dylan kept busy with a setup that included an electric keyboard, a doubleneck pedal steel and a 5ft. Yamaha grand piano.
For the second number Mark Knopfler joined the band on stage, his red Stratocaster adding the only splash of color to the scruffy, dark-suited stage. Knopfler stayed out for a trio of tunes, ending his stint with the croaking crooner with a wonderful Tangled Up In Blue, a song that brought bliss to the thousands behind me.
From the second row it was clear that Bob was having a good time, smiling and engaging his band mates with winks and laughter. Dylan once remarked, “I’m just a song and dance man,” and that much was clear whenever the iconic singer left his instruments behind and sang front-of-stage, his arms gesticulating, his hands almost nervously toying with the microphone, and his soft shoes in constant shy motion. His singing was surprisingly clear and even approached the sublime; it was easy to hang on every word of lyrical masterpieces like Desolation Row and Ballad Of A Thin Man.
Dylan even wrenched some downright beautiful solos from his harmonica, an area where his skill level often seems pedestrian at best. Closing the set with a double-shot of ubiquitous rock standards, Like A Rolling Stone and All Along The Watchtower, Dylan stood toe-to-toe with his fellow soloists, belting out some solid harp solos in between soaring guitar work by his band (which included the extremely badass Charlie Sexton) before ending the night with a brilliant reworking of his anthem Blowin’ In The Wind.
As one who has seen more than a dozen Bob Dylan shows over the last 25 years, this writer can report that last night’s Montreal show was perhaps the best I’ve seen. Despite a smattering of bad reviews that suggest the enigmatic celebrity may be heading back to his hit-and-miss performance style, the ticket price is a worthy bet just in case he’s ‘on’. The addition of the great Mark Knopfler makes this show a no-brainer, just be sure to expect a low-key, highly listenable affair.