Originally, the idea was that I'd review the Bob Dylan/Merle Haggard shows at the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday, March 8, and Wednesday, March 9—I figured opening-night tickets would be harder to come by than second- and third-night ones, and I already had plans to catch Michael Mayer on Monday. Instead, my Wednesday tickets became Monday ones and my Tuesday ones disappeared into the ether, meaning that instead of getting to dig into the much-lauded differences of a Dylan show run, I get to review the exact same concert as everybody else did.
Haggard knows how to enter: dressed in black, including fedora, to a full band locked into a lazy groove, taking his bows and going straight into "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." By set's end, he could probably have used one—it was marred by technical glitches and monitor problems. (One stagehand made no less than four appearances.) This discombobulated Haggard, who talked as much as he sang, to equally good effect, particularly when he improvised one called "The Ballad of Martha Stewart," which he credited as a co-write with Dylan: "They're not through with her yet/She presents a national threat." "That last line is Bob's," he deadpanned.
Dylan had a few lines of his own, too, starting with the opener, "Drifter's Escape." Apart from a couple instances where he took center stage and played harp and/or just sang, notably on the second song, "The Man in Me," Dylan stayed rooted behind a keyboard on stage left, legs splayed, knees bent, head cocked, facing his six band members like a schoolteacher to his students. He was very much the leader, particularly on "It's Alright, Ma," here a slow, offhand, fuck-you blues (complete with a traditional vamp on the last line, "It's life and life only," making it a KO punch line), and "Queen Jane Approximately," done as shuffling lullaby with starry blue backdrop to match.
The group, anchored by longtime bassist Tony Garnier and new violinist Elana Fremerman, mostly mined a lazy swamp groove, with "Watching the River Flow" and a near-liquid "Memphis Blues Again" especially benefiting, and the three songs from 2001's dynamite "Love and Theft" slid right in, especially an amazing "Po' Boy" that was orchestrated like a jumpy '20s dance-band side. "L&T"'s "Honest With Me," meanwhile, actually resembled its recorded rendition, while "I Don't Believe You" was fairly close to The Band's Live 1966 arrangement.
Vocally, Dylan's more guttural than ever, but he was also amazingly limber, playing his roughness for both laughs and pathos on "The Man in Me" and rephrasing "Memphis Blues Again" with an ascending stop-time melody that was less sardonic than wistful. And his phrasing got especially loopy on "Mr. Tambourine Man": "In the jingle-uh-jangle-uh-morning-ugh, I'll come-uh, following uh- yooouuu." For his second encore, Dylan tipped his hat to an alleged co-writer with a lovely version of Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home."