On this tour, Dylan often plays keyboard for an entire show, standing at the edge of the stage.
By Jim Abbott
"But me, I'm still on the road
"Headin' for another joint
"We always did feel the same,
"We just saw it from a different point of view"
Those lines from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" are more poignant as years go by because the legendary singer-songwriter didn't just write them -- he lives them.
Dylan is the ultimate road warrior. Since starting his self-proclaimed "Never-Ending Tour" in 1988, he has become an authentic troubadour in the spirit of the guitar-slinging folksingers who were his first heroes.
As with so many of the turns in his long career, Dylan, who turned 64 on May 24, has executed his concert revival with unique style. There are no mammoth arenas or $100 tickets, which he likely could command if he parlayed his mere presence into a Rolling Stones-like circus.
Instead, Dylan plays in theaters, clubs and minor league ballparks, such as the second edition of his summer trek with Willie Nelson. Wearing a big cowboy hat, he plays twisted versions of his most famous songs that are sometimes unrecognizable until that first familiar lyrical phrase.
In keeping with his reputation, Dylan isn't talking about the motivation for his current tour -- or the reason that he has stayed on the road so much in such a workmanlike way.
Fans speak out
His fans, however, speculate more than enough about all things Dylan to fill the void.
"He's more at home on the road than anywhere else," says Dylan-phile Glenn Gass, a professor at Indiana University and founder of the school's rock history program. "He used to say 'I embrace chaos' and on a personal level I think he is more at home uprooted, in motion rather than sitting somewhere with time to brood."
Gass traces Dylan's restlessness to his 1977 divorce from his wife, Sara, the muse who inspired some of Dylan's most eloquent songs on albums such as 1975's "Blood on the Tracks."
There's also the weight of his image as spokesman for the 1960s generation, a burden he has endured -- and rejected -- since his earliest folk albums.
Even in the Oscar-winning "Things Have Changed," from "Wonder Boys" (2000), Dylan is singing about "trying to get as far away from myself as I can." Gass thinks that being on the road is part of the escape.
"Being in constant motion is a way to keep the fans at bay," he says. "But then, I'm probably just romanticizing like every other Dylan fan."
Although Dylan stays intentionally shrouded in mystery, there's a passage about the inspiration for the "Never-Ending Tour" in the singer's memoir, "Chronicles, Volume One."
He credits an epiphany on a 1987 tour with Tom Petty for recharging his stagnant career. He would tour constantly, challenging old fans to keep up and introducing himself to younger ones.
"The kind of crowd that would have to find me would be the kind of crowd who didn't know what yesterday was," he wrote. "My fame was immense, could fill a football stadium, but it was like having some weird diploma that wouldn't get you into any college."
Dylan's new education would take place under the guise of a working musician, without the rock-star trappings that accompanied his landmark tours with the Band and his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue. He would make fans focus on music rather than the man.
On his current tour, Dylan confounds those interested in nostalgic renditions of greatest hits. Often he plays keyboard for an entire show, standing at the edge of the stage rather than in the spotlight.
"It's perverse," Gass says of the radical way that Dylan toys with his timeless songs. He adds that it's also the reason he keeps going to watch him.
"I went to see him three years in a row in Bloomington (Ind.). One show was spectacular, one was mediocre, and one was disastrous.
"I mean, if you go to see the Rolling Stones, you know pretty much what you're going to get," he adds. "With Dylan, you just never know."
Of course, when you drop $160 on Rolling Stones tickets, you had better get some memorable "Satisfaction."
Yet there's still a place for Dylan's quirky genius in the concert industry. Last year, he grossed $14.6 million in total ticket sales to place 48th among the top 100 tours ranked by industry journal Pollstar. Prince topped the list with $87.4 million.
But there's a big difference in the way Dylan tours compared with most major stars.
"With a lot of the big tours, it tends to be 30 or 40 dates to cover America," says Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar's editor-in-chief. "Dylan does a lot of smaller markets that other acts don't.
"So does Willie Nelson," he adds. "I know that Willie does a lot of shows that his management company might not even know he's doing."
Madonna grossed $79.5 million last year on 39 shows in just 14 cities. An average Madonna ticket was $144, compared with $41 for Dylan, who played more than twice as many shows.
"You would be hard-pressed to find an artist with a better work ethic," Bongiovanni says.