Since Bob Dylan’s Grammy-winning album “Time Out of Mind” was released four years ago, the 60-year-old rock master has played 460 live shows, soaking up the cheers from crowds around the world.
He feeds off his Never Ending Tour, dancing, grinning, cracking jokes, engaging in guitar duels with his band, then standing at solemn attention, his suit coat soaked with sweat, bending in a deep bow before leaving the stage.
In the spring he went into the studio to give some of the energy back, and the result is “Love and Theft,” an album already hailed as one of the best of his 40-year career, given a five-star rating and called a “remarkable achievement” by Rolling Stone.
“Love and Theft,” to be released on Tuesday by Columbia Records, a unit of Sony Corp, finds Dylan, a vegetarian and sometime boxer, singing “Feel like a fightin’ rooster, feel better than I ever felt.”
It finds him “standing on the table, proposing a toast to the King;” driving a Cadillac and a Mustang Ford, “dropping into overdrive,” a man who “knows a place where there’s still something going on.”
Earlier this year Dylan told the Irish Sunday Mirror that “a lot of people can’t stand touring, but to me it’s like breathing. I don’t care who you are, you are going to be disappointed in daily life. The cure for all that is to get up onstage, and that is why performers do it.”
His two-hour shows pluck songs from the hundreds in his own catalog or come from those passed down for generations, like “Rovin’ Gambler,” “Cocaine” or “Duncan and Brady.”
Dylan has infused his new record with the spirit of these songs, loving them and stealing from them in the same breath, producing a record that can be seen as a history of American music from the 1920s to the present.
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“There are a lot of people who aren’t served by the music that they hear today, and this is the kind of record that people are hungry for,” says Columbia Records President Don Ienner.
In a statement to USA Today, Dylan said: “I think of it as a greatest hits album, Volume One or Volume Two – without the hits. Not yet anyway.”
A joke? Perhaps. The album is filled with jokes, sly, backhanded jokes about being in love with a second cousin, or living in the same house with Samantha Brown for four or five months, “Don’t know how it looked to other people, I never slept with her even once.”
Or he jumps to the Hee-Haw school of comedy on the record: he’s naked, “hunting bear;” he calls room service and says “send up the room;” he hears a knock, “Freddie or not, here I come.”
In contrast to his ’60s image of the pouting intellectual cynic, Dylan has been drawing groans and laughs for the last few years with these same type of jokes from the stage.
“I almost didn’t make it tonight,” he’ll say, “had a flat tire, there was a fork in the road.”
Or at a show at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, he said: “I can’t believe I’m here. People always say that I’m a long way from normal.”
On stage, Dylan looks like a 1920s undertaker or a farmer all dressed for a trip to town. And in an era when Beck is dropping from the sky in a huge bed, when Madonna performs on a stage so elaborate she is reduced to a speck of sand, Dylan has no gimmicks.
He’s just there with his band, Larry Campbell, Charlie Sexton, Tony Garnier and David Kemper, playing his music, winning his Grammy, his Oscar, finishing up the gig, moving on to the next town.
“I don’t want to put on the mask of celebrity,” he told the Mirror. “I’d rather just do my work and see it as a trade.”
“Love and Theft” was recorded in just two weeks, giving it a bare bones, live sound.
Instead of the studio full of musicians employed for “Time Out of Mind,” Dylan stuck with his road band, adding only Augie Meyers, the one-time Texas Tornado and Sir Douglas Quintet keyboard player.
And where “Time Our of Mind” was the story of aging and impending death, “Love and Theft” celebrates life in its many glints, with Dylan the wry observer, sometimes giddy, sometimes ironic, sometimes both.
The band is elastic, ripping through Carl Perkins-like rockabilly, Delta blues, Bob Wills’ Western swing, and Sinatra-like pop. Dylan even steals from himself with a song, “Honest With Me,” that echoes “Highway 61.”
In “Highwater (For Charley Patton)” the country is flooded, the Mississippi has broken over the levee, and references come fast and furious, just like they do on stage when he revisits “Desolation Row” or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “Tombstone Blues.”
Big Joe Turner is there in the lyrics, along with Kansas City, Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Charles Darwin (“trapped out there on Highway 5”), Clarence Ashley’s coo coo bird and Robert Johnson’s “dust my broom,” Fat Nancy and George Lewes. “Things are breakin’ up out there, Highwater everywhere.”
Each time a song sounds an alarm, another style comes drifting in, sometimes extolling the moonlight or the joys of a “sugar coated rhyme” or the simple pleasures of fishing for bullheads.
Dylan’s audience has grown younger over the years, more of his crowds are filled with people under 30 looking for music less threatening than Blink182 and with more substance than Lil’ Romeo.
As I stood in my kitchen this week listening to “Love and Theft,” chopping mushrooms for a breakfast omelet, two teen-agers came by the house.
They stood for a moment outside the door, looking a little dreamy, swaying to the music of a gravel-voiced 60-year-old singer and his road band.
“Wow,” the 15-year-old girl said. “That’s really cool. Who is it, anyway?”