Half a century ago, folk legend Bob Dylan asked gospel legend Mavis Staples for her hand in marriage. Staples felt she was too young, and she turned him down, but the pair remained friends, creating music together throughout the turbulence of the civil rights movement.
In 2016, at the cusp of a new movement of social change, Dylan approached Staples with one more proposal; Playing the opening act on a month-and-a-half-long tour to support his latest album, Fallen Angels.
This time, Staples said yes.
Sharing the same stage (but not at the same time) at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on July 14, the duo seemed, in theory, like the perfect balm to sooth the soul of a wounded world, or at least stir up a spark of change. With a shared and storied history of protest songs and civil rights anthems, the onus seemed to fall on Dylan to address a racially-charged political shift across the world.
Yet as he nears octogenarianism, Dylan contains multitudes: his prolific career has carried him from a politically-charged civil rights beacon to a jazz crooner, shrugging off expectations as he morphs into each iteration of his new self. Dylan represents conflicting ideologies, but he doesn’t care. He does exactly what he wants, as his audience feels his much-needed message begin to slip away, into a cloud of jazz standards and Frank Sinatra covers.
Staples, who once faced jail time with the Staple Singers and shared stages with Martin Luther King Jr., brought her history of civil rights advocacy with her to Boston, alluding to a series of recent incidents in America and abroad, before launching into a Pops Staples classic, “Freedom Highway.” “There is just one thing/I can’t understand my friend/Why some folk think freedom/Was not designed for all men,” she roared. “I was there in Montgomery, Alabama, and I’m here now,” she shouted as music swelled around her. “I’m a fighter, I’m a survivor, I’m a soldier, and I’m still fighting! I’m fighting for love! I’m fighting for peace!”
Staples tore up the stage with songs from her new record, Livin’ on a High Note, a jubilant curation of songs written by Ben Harper, Nick Cave, Neko Case, Justin Vernon and others. “We have 12 different songwriters, and all of them are younger than me,” Staples told the Boston crowd, laughing. “If y’all write us a song, we’ll record your song.”
Dylan took to the stage, steeped in nonchalance. He wore a long black jacket, a flat-brimmed hat, and in a distant, leaned-back posture as he alternated between center-stage vocals, a baby grand, and (briefly) a harmonica. Out of a 20-song set list, 1960’s and 1970’s Dylan emerged in three songs; “She Belongs To Me,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” as the first of two encores.
Weaving eight jazz standards between almost every original song, Dylan performed the three classics with his expected variations of impatience, like an actor playing with the cadence of his lines. He bounced between news highs and lows, changing the time signature and style, leading the audience away from a sing-along he so clearly dreaded.
The audience rose from their seats and sang along to “Duquesne Whistle,” one of five songs pulled from his 2012 Tempest. Dylan’s unsparing social commentary shone through in “Pay In Blood, ” an exploration of America’s history of racism. “Our nation must be saved and freed,” he sang, “You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?”
As the lights dimmed between songs, the band seemed to go through a palpable transformation. Dylan’s energy was focused mainly on Fallen Angels tunes, including “Melancholy Mood,” and “All Or Nothing At All.” Yves Montand’s “Autumn Leaves” and Cy Coleman’s “Why Try to Change Me Now” made the set, two songs heard more in cover-form than as originals. The lights would dim again, and the band would go into jazzy, bluesy renditions of Dylan’s originals, carried by Charlie Sexton’s guitar and Donnie Herron’s pedal steel, violin and banjo.
Dylan, ever the poet, left the audience with an encore to reflect upon: “Blowin’ In The Wind,” finally providing a on the times at hand, “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?” he sang, seated at the piano. Finally, a somber Sinatra ballad from his 2015 Shadows in the Night, concluding the show with an assurance to his embattled following, in “Stay With Me.” “Should my feet sometimes stumble, On the way,” he sang, “stay with me.”
Perhaps this is the message an embattled world ought to take away from Dylan’s shows— a request to stay, as the musician changes shape. As Dylan passes on the mantle of civil rights through music, Staples channels the lyrics of younger generations. Ultimately, despite his best efforts, Dylan’s songs, which once changed the course of history, live on through one ever-changing man.