During a swinging, jazzy "Spirit on the Water" Friday night in Indiana University's Assembly Hall, Bob Dylan sang:
"You think I'm over the hill?"
The big, all-ages crowd shouted, "No!"
Dylan sang the next verse: "You think I'm past my prime?"
The response was a longer, louder, "Noooooo!"
"Let me see what you got!" Dylan growled, then added a joyful, "We can have a whoppin' good time!" And his subsequent harmonica break ripped through the cheers.
It's true that Dylan's voice basically blew a gasket at least a decade ago. And his current presentation is a different universe from his early acoustic troubadour stance.
And it's not for everybody. By the 10th song, the classic "My Back Pages," some folks were exiting down Assembly Hall's ramps.
But the majority seemed to agree with David Frye, the former Monroe County Community School Corp. associate superintendent, who leaned across his chair in the audience to say, "Dylan is still Dylan. He's a poet, a wordsmith. He's an artist. And I'm ready for more."
Dylan took the ready and willing on a guided tour of his personal great American songbook Friday night.
After a soulful opening set from Amos Lee's band and an impassioned solo-acoustic performance by Elvis Costello, Dylan and his six-piece ensemble supplied the stylistic range they've showcased on recent albums.
Kicking off with a pair of chestnuts — "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" from Blonde on Blonde and the even earlier "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan — the band really seemed to find a good, jamming groove on "Watching the River Flow."
Following a brooding, eerie, effective version of "Love Sick," the genre-hopping began in earnest.
In order came the revved up Delta blues shuffle of "Rollin' and Tumblin'"; the Django-fueled "Spirit on the Water"; the banjo-driven country-blues rock of "High Water (For Charlie Patton)"; and the folk-rock of "Workingman's Blues No. 2." Dylan was then ready to cap a lilting "My Back Pages" with a magnificent harmonica solo that brought a standing ovation from the faithful.
The wasn't the evening's first standing O. Costello certainly earned one with a ferocious set that finished with a fabulous 1-2-3-4 punch of "Alison," "Radio Radio," "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding" and a tune co-written with T-Bone Burnett which Costello said was about a war widow. It featured the refrain:
"We'll rise above the scarlet tide
That trickles down the mountain
And separates the widow from the bride."
Costello described a "war widow who starts to question what her government tells her and, for that, is called by some a traitor, but I call her a patriot." That drew the sort of cheer the Assembly Hall crowd usually reserves for the likes of D.J. White.
Dylan eschewed overt politicking, but he was preaching to the choir all night. He wore a black hat, and was dressed from head to toe in black with silver trappings, and his band was similarly attired.
But they weren't playing a funeral.
There's some prime time left in the ol' poet laureate, yet.
And where once Dylan saw cigarette lighters amid an audience calling out for an encore, Friday night's crowd stomped until the Assembly Hall floor shook and held aloft illuminated cell phones.
Dylan's latest album, after all, is titled Modern Times.