Bob Dylan played a lot of oldies when he appeared at Boston’s Blue Hills Bank Pavilion earlier this month, although they were probably not the ones some fans may havebeen expecting. Almost half of the songs performed over two sets (plus encore) were from the Great American Songbook, mostly from his last two Sinatra-centric albums, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, mixed in with originals from this millennium, and only three of his own classic compositions from the 1960s and 70s.

Singing style

Singing standards has apparently helped Dylan reclaim his tonal breath control. By focusing on material from a softer, pre-rock era, Dylan’s already unique vocal style now employs subtle nuances, which brought an additional layer of emotion from someone who has obviously been doing his homework. His voice is now much clearer -- and smoother -- than in recent years, but he still has his trademark grit, giving the songs an extra dose of heartfelt regret and, at times, hope, along with nostalgia for a bygone era.

The standards -- never performed back-to-back -- were in sharp contrast to his most recent material. Unlike the romantic air of “Autumn Leaves” or “Melancholy Mood,” Dylan’s choices of original songs were often ugly and violent. As he said in his 2001 Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Original Song, theopening “Things Have Changed,” was “a song that doesn't pussyfoot around nor turn a blind eye to human nature.” This could be applied to most of the original compositions Dylan also performed at the Pavilion.

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Protesting

Dylan concerts are challenging events. Performing a mix of tough new material with much safer fare may have been Dylan commenting (and not for the first time) on the sorry state of current popular music.The evening felt like Dylan was protesting the current crop of lightweights polluting the charts, internet, and airwaves in the post-9/11 era: “Look here!” Dylan appears to be saying. “There is actually some work, research and talent that goes into songwriting!” The standards -- which went out of style when Dylan, the Beatles, and others made Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building-type songwriters obsolete almost overnight -- featured trained musicians and composers who actually understood musical theory, matched with lyrics written to soothe the psyche of middle America throughout the first half of the war-filled 20th century with class and wit. His own recent material is often Shakespearean in tone, and gives an unflinching, explosive view into the vulgar side of human nature.

The future

Dylan may be schooling the younger generation of musical wannabes with the songs he chose: Songwriters? Try studying Johnny Mercer, Cy Coleman, Buddy Kaye, Sergei Rachmaninoff, or Shakespeare himself. Modern country? Check out some old school C&W via “Duquesne Whistle.” Americana? How about the devastating “High Water (For Charlie Patton)?” Hip to Gangsta rap? Got anything as tough and gruesome as “Pay In Blood?” Want to change the world?

Well, there’s always “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Surprisingly -- if one can be surprised by the mercurial musician -- Dylan shows no sign of abandoning standards for the foreseeable future. It was reported that Dylan has recently cut an additional 30 songs, again at Capitol Studios, and possibly gave a clue to their content by performing his versions of two more standards -- “That Old Feeling” and “I Could Have Told You” -- at the Pavilion.

At 75, Dylan is still pushing boundaries, even if it’s by traveling backwards in time. Yet he is no nostalgia act, especially when it comes to his own history. “The past is dead and gone, tomorrow might as well be now,” Dylan sang in a revamped “Tangled Up in Blue.” However, as we learned at the concert, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from it.

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