FARGO - He's not "Forever Young," but at 71, Bob Dylan is still pretty good.
The iconic singer brought his Never Ending Tour back to the Fargo Civic Center on Sunday night, the latest and maybe last visit for an artist who cut his musical chops in town.
His nearly two-hour set was packed with gems and overlooked nuggets from his 50 years of recorded history, ranging from 1963's "Girl from the North Country" to 2006's "Modern Times." (He didn't play anything off his newest album, "Tempest," due out Sept. 11.)
He kicked off the night with the bluesy "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," giving a sense of the musical tone of the evening - a "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" show.
He seemed happy as he turned from the keyboard where he sat, often smiling or gesturing to those in front of the mostly full house of about 3,500.
And it is safe to say his piano playing has come a long way since he was fired from Bobby Vee and the Shadows for just banging away more than 50 years ago. He particularly took joy in playing harmonica in one hand and playing chords with the other.
After "Girl from the North Country," he came to the front of the stage to give a countrified twist to "Things have Changed," doing some dancing, to the crowd's delight.
Dylan is well-known for reworking his songs, challenging fans to figure them out before he gets too deep into the lyrics. Such was the case with a slowed down "Tangled Up in Blue."
Those wanting to hear versions similar to the recordings may not have been happy as Dylan particularly plays with phrasing, nixing sing-alongs for those who can figure out the song.
His voice now rougher than ever, he often added emphasis to the final word in a line, but the notion that he mumbles was largely dispelled, and his voice sounded as strong as it could be. He's never been a great singer, but he delivers lines mischievously, adding to the playfulness, even if he's the only one who knows the joke.
The footlights glowing red orange in the performers' faces added to the impish vibe. Dylan did not allow professional photographers to shoot the show.
The highlight was a trio of songs in the middle, starting with the Western swing of "Summer Days" leading in to an upbeat "Desolation Row," an oldie he dusted off in Fargo for the first time, with Charlie Sexton's guitar really shining. After that they turned "Highway 61" into a roadhouse rave-up, leaving fans in a tizzy.
As expected, the singer wasn't chatty and didn't regale fans with tales of his formative years in Fargo. He only addressed the crowd once, saying, "Thank you friends," before introducing the band.
But his playing spoke volumes. During a jam on "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan seemed agitated with his group and quit playing, resting his hands on the keyboard before banging out a chord progression. He consulted briefly with longtime bassist Tony Garnier mid-song, who conveyed a message to drummer George Receli. The tempo slowed, and Dylan started playing again.
If he was upset, he didn't let it affect the show otherwise. The band cranked up an energetic romp through the standard set closer, "All Along the Watchtower," before they left the stage.
Everyone returned for the encore, a full sounding "Blowin' in the Wind." The folk favorite got extra punch from multi-instrumentalist Don Herron, who stepped aside from the pedal steel guitar to play violin.
At 71, it's hard to imagine Dylan will come back through Fargo again. So even if he heard something he didn't like in the set, he left fans on a fine note.
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533