SHANGHAI - "Every day you've got to give yourself another chance," Bob Dylan crooned in a lyrically revised "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking."
The obscure rocker from 1979's "Slow Train Coming" opened Friday's concert at the Grand Stage, Dylan's second in the Chinese mainland following Wednesday's performance at Beijing's Workers' Gymnasium.
With fan expectations running high given the cancellation of his planned China concerts last year, Dylan delivered big in his Shanghai debut. The veteran American troubadour's lucid set captivated the near capacity audience of Chinese and expatriates.
"I am not that familiar with Bob Dylan's music, but the concert turned out to be excellent," said He Qi, a student from Guangdong province majoring in exhibition design. "I admire him for being capable of performing so well after all these years."
Dylan's singing was strong and assured. Indeed, he exercised a vocal control sometimes absent in recent tours.
Meanwhile, his virtuoso five-piece band was tight, easily changing musical tempo, style and even instruments. Steel guitar player Donnie Herron tripled on the electric mandolin and banjo. Hard-rocking arrangements gave lead guitarist Charlie Sexton room to display his considerable chops.
The 16-song set list spanned the length of the 69-year-old Dylan's five-decade career, highlighting both his classic and contemporary recordings. The audience roared with approval at the first familiar lines of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Like a Rolling Stone," all from his prolific mid-1960s period.
Yet Dylan shined equally bright on newer material. "I'm in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood," he leered in a searing "Things Have Changed." The Oscar-winning song from the 2000 "Wonder Boys" film boasted a muscular triple guitar arrangement punctuated by Charlie Sexton's agile leads.
Dylan seriously upped the ante with a haunting rendition of "Blind Willie McTell." The song, named for the legendary American blues musician, was recorded for the 1983 "Infidels" album but left unreleased until 1991. Here was Dylan the poet, bluesman, performer and allegorist, at the zenith of his abilities. While Donnie Herron plucked phantom twangs on the banjo, Dylan sang commandingly, "Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying, 'This land is condemned, All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.' "
Swaying at center stage, Dylan wailed on his harmonica between verses, drawing uproarious applause from the audience even if many of them did not recognize the song.
"It's a great song but not that well known; I never thought I would get to hear it at my first Dylan show," said Matt Eaves, an English teacher and musician from Britain living in Shanghai.
Indeed, Dylan has never sought to cultivate nostalgia onstage. For fifty years, he has used the stage to reinvent himself, sometimes to the ire of critics and fans.
He launched the aptly named Never Ending Tour in June 1988, playing nearly 100 shows a year since.
Yet outside of Israel and Japan, Dylan performed just four times in Asia before his current tour. In February 1994, he played one show each in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Last March, he played a single date in Seoul.
Fans are hoping this year's Dylan concerts in Beijing and Shanghai open doors for other international performers to play in China.
"It was thrilling to see Bob Dylan; I've been listening to his music for ten years," said Xu Yunliang, marketing manager for a Shanghai communications consultancy. "I hope more artists will have the chance to play here in the future."
Dylan will conclude his Asian tour this week with two shows in Hong Kong and one in Singapore.