The good: Solid setlist. This is what keeps Dylan loyalists coming. He picks the best of his third-comeback era — "Thunder on the Mountain," "Beyond Here Lies Nothing," "Things Have Changed" (for which he one an Oscar, and was that Mr. Goldenrod himself sitting atop Dylan's piano last night?) — along with refreshingly reworked chestnuts like "Blowing in the Wind" (the saloon remix), "Highway 61 Revisited" (the honky-tonk remix) and "Ballad of a Thin Man" (the David Lynch remix).
His quintet performed those numbers with the usual precision and flair, setting the standard for backing bands (though opener Mark Knopfler's seven-piece gang threw down its own gauntlet of instrumental mastery and genre-hopping versatility). Dylan himself largely attended to the piano, but occasionally wandered over to the center mic. This is where he really comes alive, throwing verses out like fastballs, integrating the harmonica with enthusiasm and maintaining a wily character acting out the lyrics (with a few smiles when the moment called for it). A crystal-clear sound system allowed for the projection of Dylan's more articulate moments, which meant we could hear the stories of songs like "Girl From North Country" and "Delia" ("Delia was a gambling girl, gambled all around" — we see what you did there, Zimmy), both welcome back-catalog selections.
The bad: Nothing from Tempest, the brand-new studio album Dylan has left off this tour leg's setlist except for an Oct. 5 airing of "Scarlet Town." A shame: It's a strong record that deserves concert exposure.
Also: Dylan seems to think he's some sort of piano player, for his work at the keys sounded disproportionately louder than anything else coming from the stage. He and incomparable guitarist Charlie Sexton complemented — and played off — each other nicely during "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" and "Highway 61." But elsewhere, he nearly drowned Sexton (and other musicians) out, Dylan sometimes banging on the ivories like a toddler who finally worked his way atop the bench when Mom wasn't looking. It's one thing to compromise the vocal melodies, but to thwart to instrumental ones or just pound out chords that should have remained in the rehearsal room made for awkward, even unnerving moments. Dylan should fire the "piano player" (or return to the more subtle organs he used to favor) and stick the role the crowd so clearly relishes: The shuffling, vamping showman at center-stage.
The ugly: Jesus, Bob Dylan can't muster more than a few thousand people at his Vegas shows anymore? He couldn't sell out The Joint last time he played there, and he may have barely done so with the embarrassingly sparse crowd last night.
And the flipside of that vocal exhibition: We expect the bleating, the croaking, the phrasing shifts, and the gruff, weathered-bluesman affectations. But Dylan sounded downright phlegmatic at times. Between that and his instrumental shortcomings, one must question whether his performance warrants a triple-digit ticket charge. The answer, my friend, may just lie in that 3/4-empty arena.