Bob Dylan’s St. Louis concerts of the past few years, with opening acts Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, were fine shows, but they didn’t produce any indelible superstar summits that found the legendary musicians performing together.
So it was a surprise when, during the encore of his sold-out appearance at the Fox Theatre on Monday, Dylan strode onstage with opening act Elvis Costello. The pair sang Dylan’s "Tears of Rage," with Costello taking the lead and Dylan joining in when the spirit moved him. The collaboration was impassioned, if a little tentative, but it was still one of those special moments that come along all too rarely.
Dylan’s proper set was pretty special, too. Though his voice has at times seemed little more than a turn-your-head-and-cough wheeze, at the Fox he sounded ancient and timeless, barking warnings like "The Levee’s Gonna Break" and spitting out bitter, withering versions of "Love Sick," "Ain’t Talkin’" and "Things Have Changed."
When he faltered — Dylan’s croon on shuffling tunes like "Spirit on the Water" and "Summer Days" remains unconvincing — his band was always there to pick him up, especially guitarist Denny Freeman, whose solos were economical, but always on target.
Dylan sprinkled classic tunes, such as "It Ain’t Me, Babe," "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "All Along the Watchtower," throughout the two-hour performance, but he didn’t lay back on any of them. This was his finest performance in St. Louis since his three-night stand at the Pageant in 2004.
For anyone of lesser stature, Costello’s opening solo set would have been impossible to follow. As with Dylan, the classic tunes were there — "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Alison" and "(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" — but it was the newer songs that impressed the most.
Costello debuted a song he recently wrote with Loretta Lynn that he said was about a man’s first wife speaking to the woman who took her place. He also sang "Sulfur to Sugarcane," about a piggish politician and a country-ish drinking song "Down Among the Wine and Spirits."
He closed his set with "The Scarlet Tide," a song written for the Civil War film Cold Mountain but refitted for the war in Iraq. Costello drew cheers as he threw down the challenge, presumably to the president, "Admit you lied / And bring the boys back home."