Bob Dylan brought his Never, Never, Well Probably Sometime, Ending Tour back to the Bill Graham Civic last night on an impossibly warm Eric Burdon-ish San Francisco night. Opening was guitar virtuoso Mark Knopfler, who last summer was on stage with Bob, but this time kept to himself, along with his amazingly versatile band of musicians, all virtuosos on instruments ranging from mandolin, to bouzouki, flute, whistle and accordion.
Knopfler’s set was impeccable. A couple of old Dire Straits songs, a bit of rockabilly, a hint of Celtic mystery and a beautifully drawn journey into English folk, much of it from his new album, “Privateering.” The audience — the Civic seemed about two-thirds full, with a good number of younger fans — loved his hour-long set.
Fifteen minutes later, Bob and his band took the stage. The atmosphere quickly changed from the sometimes mannered and polite musical lilt of Knopfler’s set, to the loud, piano driven rock Dylan is bringing back home this tour. The biggest difference in this latest tour is Bob’s piano — except for his opening organ turn on “Watching the River Flow” — he’s sitting and standing at a grand piano, and the piano is definitely highlighted in the sound mix. Not sure what lead guitarist Charlie Sexton thinks about that, especially because Bob’s piano work occasionally veers into the chaotic, but the star wants his piano out front, and that’s how it’s going to be.
The other surprise, beyond Bob’s voice and phrasing — his lyrics, for once, were clearly decipherable and he only occasionally lapsed into the froggy Howlin’ Wolf growl he often uses, especially for blues numbers — was the relatively predictable set the band played. Nothing from his acclaimed new album, “Tempest,” but a cavalcade of greatest hits at the end — “Thin Man,” “Rolling Stone,” “Watchtower” and a piano-driven, bluesy “Blowin’ in the Wind” encore.
He was animated, seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, dressed as usual in his flat-brimmed hat and country gentleman outfit, and energetic throughout — while talking to the band constantly through the set and clearly in the role of bandleader. Important role — since the arrangements, as always, were altogether new, sometimes amusingly so for chestnuts such as “Highway 61.”
Along with “Joey” (his tale of the mobster Joey Gallo from 1976′s “Desire” and Bob seemed to love drawing out the name “Jo-eeee” ), the only other surprise was a lovely “Forgetful Heart” – again, clearly sung and enunciated by the 71-year-old Bob. Along with “Beyond Here Lies Nothin” this meant that 2009′s “Together Through Life” at least was represented with two songs.
The show went on past 10:30 — perhaps a little late for some of the aging musicians. At the end, Bob gave the audience a grin and half wave, which, for rock ‘n roll’s most enigmatic character, said a lot.
Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler play again Thursday night at the San Francisco Civic, and Friday night in Berkeley at the Greek Theater.