South Kingstown — Bob Dylan is one of the few performers who has earned the right to give the audience something other than what they expect. In his show last night at the Ryan Center, at least in the early going, he continued his seemingly lifelong tour with reinventions of classic songs, some more successful than others.
Dylan played guitar for the first time in a Rhode Island show in several years, and his band came out of the box with a stomping roadhouse version of “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” then went into a hoedown version of “Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right),” with Dylan employing his now-trademark spurting of syllables in staccato, barking-style formations. In this case, he created new melodies that stood alongside the originals; at other times (“The Lonesome Ballad of Hattie Carroll”), most of the crowd didn’t get what song they were listening to until the chorus, and one had to wonder what a first-time listener would think.
Well, one had to, but Dylan didn’t, apparently. At this point, who’s he trying to win over?
That version of “Hattie Carroll” was a good illustration of what’s happened to Dylan’s voice, and by extension what’s happened to the songs. His fierce growl was by turns fiery and wounded, with an unusual tenderness which, along with the pretty backing by the band, made the rendition surprisingly gentle yet still affecting. On the other hand, the full-band version of “Hollis Brown” played up the ooky-spookiness of the death-laden song to the detriment of the emotional impact. As for the rockers, a menacing “Highway 61” and a train-rhythm “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” were early highlights.
Primarily employing an acoustic guitar that was turned up just loud enough that quiet passages were clear but loud sections were appealingly distorted, Elvis Costello ran through solo acoustic renditions of songs spanning his career.
Costello was far more charged up than in his last Rhode Island appearance, at the 2005 Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival. At times, he was playful, as during a segue from “Radio Sweetheart” to Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said,” as well as the jaunty roots-country of “From Sulfur to Sugar Cane,” written with T-Bone Burnett. At others, he was politically charged, as on “The River in Reverse” (“Count your blessings when they ask permission. To rule with money and superstition”) and the closing “The Scarlet Tide” (“… that separates the widow from the bride”), with its interjected “admit you lied, and bring the boys home.”
Playing without his crack band, The Imposters (formerly The Attractions), Costello was handicapped during rock songs such as “Less Than Zero” and the ballad “Alison.” On the other hand, the setting gave him room to play with vocal dynamics and range, such as on “Veronica” and a wounded “Either Side of the Same Town.” And on some songs, such as “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?,” both phenomena happened in the same song.
Singer-songwriter Amos Lee opened the show with songs that fell into classic templates, usually at the intersection of blues and the ballad side of Southern rock. The stately ballads “Careless” and the new “What’s Been Going On?” were highlights, as was a loose, sinister “Black River,” with malleted drums.