#Bob Dylan and #Mavis Staples recently returned to Boston to play the Agganis Arena, 16 months after their last appearance together at the outdoor Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. Their careers have intertwined sporadically over the decades, and Dylan, who has not released any new compositions in five years, recently informed Staples he has written a song for her.

The Agganis Arena was built on the #Boston University campus, replacing the Massachusetts Army National Guard Armory about 12 years ago, a venue probably not unlike the Duluth Armory where a young Bobby Zimmerman saw one of Buddy Holly’s final shows. Both Dylan and Staples have connections to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who received his Ph.D.

in systematic theology from B.U. in 1955. Dylan performed at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with famous B.U. dropout, Joan Baez, and met the Staples Singers, where Mavis got her start, around this time. The Staples knew, and marched with, Dr. King. During Staples’ energetic and inspirational opening set, she included a song her father, Pops Staples, wrote for one of King’s marches. She also did a sinewy cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” the Staples Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” and material from her new album, "If All I Was Was Black." Her tight band, a minimalist guitar-bass-drums combo with two additional backing vocalists, updated the classic Staples’ sound. During last year’s show, her set was a celebration of how far we’ve come. This year, it shined a light on how far we still have to go.

Lines like “Lyin’ to the races” seemed as relevant now as they ever have. Maybe more so.

Social media ban

Social media is both a blessing and a curse for music fans. It’s preferable to be somewhat surprised before attending a Bob Dylan concert, but it’s difficult to not take a cursory glance at what’s going on while on Facebook and other platforms. The whole idea is to be present, something to strive for while thinking about what to write during the show.

From the parking lot to the lighted message boards to the front of the stage, there were warnings for patrons to shut off all of their electronic devices or face ejection from the venue. There were also multiple ominous stage announcements. They weren’t kidding, with the ushers regularly instructing audience members to turn off their phones throughout the evening. Of course some people were surprised or outraged, feeling entitled to take pictures, or ignore the show to check for messages. However, Dylan wanted to make a connection with his audience in real-time, like he had with Buddy Holly back in 1959, something which apparently left a strong mark on him.

The anticipated relatively static setlists shared on social media were no preparation for Dylan's drastic rearrangements for most of his own compositions. The Agganis performance featured many of the same songs as other recent tours, but what transpired was an astonishingly different show. His singing keeps getting better, more focused and impassioned. It’s as if the Sinatra-centric standards he’s been recording over the past few years have seeped into the show’s DNA, songs moving away from the Chess blues sound of the past few albums of original material to more delicate arrangements, often adding new interloping, descending chord progressions, or staccato or stop-and-go rhythms. Longtime percussionist George Recile often played his drums with felt mallets, or the congas with his hands, while some of Charlie Sexton’s guitar solos on Dylan’s compositions felt like they were airlifted straight from some old Django Reinhardt 78s. During some of the more difficult new passages, bassist Tony Garnier acted as bandleader and arranger, keeping everyone on track.

Rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball’s new solo introductory piece was something which sounded like “The Royal Canal (The Auld Triangle),” signaling things had indeed changed. How much? Well, two of the songs, “Honest With Me” and “Thunder on the Mountain,” were reconfigured as beach party specials (Gotta surf somebody, anybody?), one of the few genres Dylan has not previously explored. At 76, he must feel so much younger now.

Rock is dead

Dressed in what looked like white dinner jackets, under theatrical lighting, Dylan and his band turned the Agganis hockey rink into an intimate dinner club. Which, in a way, made sense. Rock music has reached the end of the road, and taken a backseat to hip-hop as the prominent innovative musical genre. Modern country, as Tom Petty so eloquently put it, has now basically become “bad rock with a fiddle.” Even the 50-year-old Rolling Stone magazine, named in part after one of Dylan’s greatest hits, is up for sale. In the 1950s, Danny and the Juniors sang, “Rock and Roll is here to stay.” In the post-punk late 70s, Neil Young doubled down, declaring that “Rock and Roll will never die.” While that may be true, it can no longer grow. It has run its course. Nirvana, the Ramones, Zeppelin? Safe as milk. Does anyone remember danger? Is this the story of Johnny Rotten? Earlier this year, Mr. Lydon voiced his support of the U.S.A.’s current commander-in-chief. In some ways, punk rock was the Tea Party of music movements, an attempt to shake things up without any real plan other than to go backwards before heading forwards. If rock is truly dead, then why not go way back? Before Chuck. Before Elvis. Before Buddy. Before iPhones and social media. Back to a time when we all thought Nazis were the bad guys. To the land of Eisenhower, hula hoops, and bobby soxers. As Dylan sang in his opening salvo, “People are crazy, times are strange.”

Interspersed within the 20 song set were four American Songbook standards, with Dylan channeling his inner Frank. After starting the evening with three originals, Dylan sang Sinatra’s Columbia Records’ kiss-off, “Why Try To Change Me Now.” There was something about Dylan, center stage, mic in hand, in Frank-as-heartthrob pose, crooning away and singing, “I’ve always been your fool.” It felt like Dylan the gemini was stepping outside himself, self-referential, simultaneously sardonic and critical, giving us a glimpse behind the curtain, and into the past. Ours, and his own.

Speaking of the past, even when peeking over his shoulder, Dylan doesn’t look back. He messes with it. It’s like a bad dream, or a ghost following him around, haunting him. Gone are the guitar and harmonica, now replaced with a piano. He’s been reinventing his own songs in new settings since at least 1965. Often inspired, occasionally perfunctory, it keeps him alive, heading for another joint. Speaking of which, 1974’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” possibly Dylan’s most mutated song, is now almost completely unrecognizable. Mostly the same words, the melody has been replaced by a clip-clopping, gently marching beat. What this recasting accomplishes is to draw you into the song, forcing you to stand up and take notice. It’s not wallpaper. It’s not comfort food. It’s the here-and-now. It is being “present.” Be there or be square. For those who care, it’s an enjoyable challenge. For others, it’s either an abomination, or a bone thrown to those hoping for a morsel of nostalgia.

In the end, it was all a show. Dylan, the inscrutable star of a play only he could have scripted, freely open to misinterpretation. In the 1970s, there was a saying, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” Based on the Dead’s model, the same can be said of a Dylan show. He continues to evolve in order to survive. Dylan’s world is hermetically sealed, a place where the past and the present, counterfeit beauty and ugly facts, coexist. Enter at your own risk. Open your mind, shut off your phone, and don’t complain. He might just tell you the truth.