The University of Texas campus was buzzing with music idols young and old on Wednesday evening, as living legend Bob Dylan played Bass Concert Hall while youthful heartthrob Ed Sheeran packed the Erwin Center a few blocks away.
On the surface, the shows might have seemed polar opposites. Sheeran’s audience was vastly millennials, while Dylan drew mostly boomers. Dylan’s crew forbade all photography and video of any kind; Sheeran fans captured countless moments with their mobile devices. Sheeran was all about entertaining his fans; Dylan rarely acknowledged that a crowd was even there.
And yet, a quick visit to YouTube reveals the inevitable connection: Sheeran has covered not only Dylan’s romantic kiss-off “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” but also his protest anthem “Masters of War.” That’s the thing about Bob Dylan: He can’t be dismissed as a relic when his presence still hangs in the air, everywhere.
Wednesday marked my seventh Dylan show, stretching over a 29-year span. (No doubt many in the Bass audience have seen quite a few more.) Each of those performances have been different; for example, this was the first time I’d seen Dylan split his time between playing piano and simply singing and playing harmonica at the microphone, without ever playing guitar. About the only thing familiar about a Dylan gig is that it will be largely unfamiliar.
And so, when he plays a few of his most beloved songs — on this tour, that has been “She Belongs to Me,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” — they’re completely different from the recorded versions. That’s long been part of accepting Dylan for who he is, but perhaps no other artist with major hits could get away with such a thing.
It’s accepted largely because there’s a level of trust among his fans that Dylan is still chasing down some spark of magic, that he’s still busy being born. On Wednesday, those moments came largely through a bumper crop of songs from his 2012 album “Tempest,” most notably “Duquesne Whistle” and “Long and Wasted Years.” The latter number highlighted a hypnotic recurring riff rendered by pedal steel player Donnie Herron and guitarist Charlie Sexton, the local hero who drew cheers from the crowd on several occasions for solos that smoldered without burning too hot.
Such was the overall vibe for the entirety of the two-set performance, which ran a little past two hours counting an intermission. Stage lights were muted and cast from behind the six musicians, which included longtime bassist Tony Garnier plus drummer George Recile and rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball.
The burnished-copper tone of the lighting reflected the vibe of the music, especially on two selections from last fall’s “Shadows in the Night” album of Sinatra staples that, along with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” concluded the show. “Autumn Leaves” and “Stay With Me” found Dylan in his best voice of the night, set to arrangements that were drenched in Herron’s rich pedal steel runs.
More from “Shadows” might have been in order, given that artists generally spotlight their most recent release, and this one was widely acclaimed. But Dylan’s fans will take what he gives — and most likely will return again, whenever he does.