Bob Dylan Puts an End to “Rough and Rowdy Ways” With Two Nights in Austin

Triumphant world tour concludes at ACL Live at the Moody

“The judge, he holds a grudge”: At times, Dylan cut an imposing figure onstage, all dressed in black behind his baby grand piano. And since no photographers were allowed and attendees’ smartphones were locked in Yondr pouches, we had to call in an artist for a courtroom sketch. (Illustration by Summer Anne Burton)

On March 1 in Fort Lauderdale, Bob Dylan was a few songs into his show – and a few years into his Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour – when a woman in the audience seized a medium-quiet moment of tuning to make a request: “Play something we know!” she shouted to the stage.

Dylan squinted. He clearly heard her, as did everyone else in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Within the space of a measure, the tuning took the form of an uptempo introduction – first halting, then darting – and the chords Dylan was plinking out on his baby grand were suddenly recognizable as a melody. It was “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The band, guided by bassist Tony Garnier, gamely fell in, and the supplicant’s wish had been granted.

Well, sort of. The music was from Irving Berlin’s standard, but the words were still Bob Dylan’s. And the song, 1971’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” was never released on a studio album. Here, it instantly had a brand-new arrangement (and, if you were keeping track, the arrangement it was a new arrangement of was itself many arrangements removed from the original), a gag that actually somehow worked. It would stick in the set for more than a month since, all the way through this weekend’s two shows at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, which triumphantly closed a tour that started in 2021.

In Austin on Friday, this swinging, syncopated rendition of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” was so well-received that Dylan at times had to hold up one finger to keep the general admission crowd, standing on the floor just a few feet away, from clapping too early and often while he delivered lines. Soon enough, he was setting off on another improvised intro, a languorous, jazzy take on John Wesley Harding’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (1967), which segued into an extended harmonica break before keying back into the groove of its country shuffle origins. It may not have been Bill Evans doing bluegrass, but it showcased Dylan’s evolving piano stylings as well as his band’s uncanny ability to keep up.

Most of them, at least. The mercurial Dylan – all smiles one second, tossing a harmonica in disgust the next, and a notoriously tough boss – was visibly unhappy with one of his guitarists, shooting dirty looks his way and at one point rolling his eyes like a teenager and muttering a “Shit, man” into the mic when he felt parts weren’t played correctly during Friday’s performance.

The next night, that guitarist was replaced on nine songs by none other than Jimmie Vaughan. Talk about sending a message. Vaughan crackled on Nashville Skyline’s “To Be Alone With You” and brought a born-again zeal to “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which, as the Grammy winner for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Male after 1979’s Slow Train Coming, was arguably, and somewhat perversely, Dylan’s greatest hit played at these or any other stops on the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour.

Named for the 2020 album – the last collection of originals Dylan has made, and one of his best – its 202 shows featured a largely static set list and a selection of covers that for some stretches served as tributes to those nights’ respective locations, among them Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” in St. Louis; Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” in Montreal; and, in Austin, a breathtaking, time-stopping “Across the Borderline” written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and Jim Dickinson for Willie Nelson. (Dylan on Friday night seemed to tease Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” before abandoning the effort; the weekend also gave us Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and Jimmy Rogers’ “Walking by Myself.”)

Most of all, it featured his own brilliant blues and ballads from Rough and Rowdy Ways, which landed, alien-like, smack-dab in the middle of the pandemic … not to offer a cure for what ailed us, but rather to throw on a little mood music for civilization’s final descent.

“My Own Version of You” was Mary Shelley meets the Four Horsemen, Dylan vamping to Garnier and drummer Jerry Pentecost’s interplay; “Black Rider” found him bristling: “Let me go through, open the door,” he demanded, keening in strong voice. “My soul is distressed, my mind is at war. Don't hug me, don't flatter me, don't turn on the charm. I'll take a sword and hack off your arm.” Good to know, thanks!

Dylan, who will be 83 in May, rarely if ever plays guitar or sings front and center these days, choosing to stay behind the piano with pages of lyrics under a light. But often he’ll shoot up from the bench and bang away, experimenting with triplets and flourishes, as on “False Prophet” and its four short fills. “Another day that don't end, another ship goin' out. Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt,” he delivered with dagger-like phrasing before softening and stretching the moment of clarity: “I know how it happened. I saw it begin. I opened my heart to the world, and the world came in.”

The best of both nights could be found in such passages between violence and vulnerability, as Dylan broke apart these late-career songs he loves and glued them back together, reharmonized and reinterpreted, like Kintsugi live on stage. The most beautiful piece by far was “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” which opened with a glimmering harmonica solo (absent from the album version), then pulsed with Dylan’s held vocal notes, punctuated by Donnie Herron’s spare steel playing.

“Well, my heart’s like a river, a river that sings. Just takes me a while to realize things,” Dylan pleaded to someone who wasn’t even in the room – possibly someone from long ago and far away – with a deep yearning that made it seem like he had waited too long to finally decide. Now, it was only the audience who was swayed. “I’ll see you at sunrise, I’ll see you at dawn. I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone.”

Bob Dylan
ACL Live at the Moody Theater
April 5 and 6, 2024

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Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, Jimmie Vaughan, Tony Garnier

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