Anticipation was high Saturday night for legendary singer Bob Dylan’s first appearance in Central America.
Organizers worried they wouldn’t sell enough tickets to fill the Palacio de los Deportes, a 4,500-seat, 1980s-era basketball arena in Heredia, north of the capital. Concertgoers – who paid up to $150 for tickets – worried the sound would be muddled given the venue’s penchant for bad acoustics. And just before doors opened, Dylan barred news media from photographing the show.
But anxiety turned to euphoria when the 70-year-old poet-singer, smiling slyly, walked on stage dressed in his trademark brown porkpie hat. He settled into his role as musical barker with the opening chords of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
Thousands of fans, who descended on the Central Valley from all corners of Costa Rica and other parts of Central America, rose to their feet in a collective roar of adoration. Yes, that was Bob Dylan on stage.
The crowd’s diversity ran the gamut from gray-haired hippies to teenagers, musicians, writers, bankers, all linked by a rare opportunity to see a man who’s been transcribing life into song for half a century.
In a set that lasted just under two hours, Dylan performed 18 songs from his 600-song repertoire, spending most of the night behind a Korg organ and filling in interludes with an array of harmonicas that drove fans into a frenzy with every note.
As expected, Dylan’s traveling band is well-versed in the different genres that characterize his music – swing, blues, jazz, country and rock – and with two guitars, electric and upright bass, drums and lap steel guitar, they provided a flamboyant sound that was well-suited to Dylan’s aging, gravely voice.
Playing with the legend requires one to be on his toes. There is an unmistakably impromptu approach to Dylan’s live performances, which don’t sound like earlier recordings or the classic hits we grew up listening to on the radio. He sometimes forgets lyrics. He sets up a guitar solo only to launch into another verse. He gives orders on the run. And sometimes the music takes a back seat to smartly worded lyrics.
But the band seems to take it in stride. They’ve done this before.
On his second song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” fans responded to each lyric with hoots and hollers, and the band brought it home in grand style.
Dylan’s strange phrasing on “Tangled Up in Blue” didn’t seem to bother anyone, and the set’s fifth song, “Summer Days,” a swinging number from Dylan’s 31st studio album “Love and Theft,” had everyone dancing in the aisles.
One of the evening’s prettiest songs, “Not Dark Yet,” from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind, ” is also one of Dylan’s most existentialist: “Feel like my soul has turned into steel. I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal. … I was born here and I’ll die here against my will. I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still.”
When you’re blue, turn to the blues, and Dylan did on his next two songs, “Jolene” and “Ballad Of Hollis Brown,” a 1964 song about a poverty-stricken South Dakota man who kills his family and himself.
The classic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” came off flat, with rushed lyrics, uncomfortable pauses and a band struggling to follow their leader. But he’s Dylan, these are his songs, he’ll do what he wants.
Next was another of the night’s highlights, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a well-known early track that showcases Dylan’s incredible storytelling ability: “Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your tears.” A slow fade out added a haunting beauty to the troubling subject of the song.
By this time in the show, most folks, enthralled, had taken their seats. But “Highway 61 Revisited” brought everyone to his and her feet again, and the energy in the room was as electric as the 1965 album of the same name.
Fans also appreciated Dylan’s choice of popular tunes to end out the historic evening, including “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (although with no alcohol sales at the venue and no smoking allowed, no one was getting stoned).
At the curtain call, Dylan noticed a particularly euphoric group of young concertgoers in the balcony to his left. During an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he walked to stage left and delivered a personalized harmonica solo for the group of ecstatic fans, providing them an unforgettable moment from an unforgettable night.
And he left the stage as he entered it, smiling slyly.