Live and demystified

More man than legend, Bob Dylan brings it all back home

Before his November 7 appearance at the Dallas Music Complex, Bob Dylan hadn't performed in Dallas since his 1990 concert at the Fair Park Music Hall. It was a sit-down (and scratch-your-head) affair, with Dylan blurring the line between mattering and muttering, lathering and butchering, as he rendered his own modern classics within an inch of their relevance: Omigod! That was 'Like a Rolling Stone' he just played! The living legend went for a walk and charged the public for a glimpse of his footsteps. Meanwhile, one critic reviewing a stop on that "Rolling Blunder" tour wondered in print if Dylan suffered from the same thing that ails Muhammad Ali.

Mortality hits the severely blessed, severely. And so Dylan was relegated to the "Why are they now?" file.

The nasal voice once shouldered responsibility to an entire generation, but lately Dylan's stretched-out phrasing needs only speak to those who buy tickets to his frequent concerts. Bob Dylan, lionized for his pioneering meld of literature and music, has turned out to be human after all, but that's not such a bad thing as he and his overachieving bar band proved at the DMC with an urgent set that cooked the mystique right down to the groove.

These are quickly changing times for a music industry trying to redefine itself after 40 years of rock and roll mythology; that its most-exalted artist should expose the fable with such straightforward confidence was refreshing indeed. Basically, Dylan drilled it. Introduced as "Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan," as if he was merely Jeff Buckley or Eddie Money, the man who launched a million cheesy imitators (and about 29 good ones, including Bruce Springsteen), took the stage without much more fanfare than the sound of 2,700 fans with their hopes up.

The oxymoronic Dallas Music Complex--so threadbare, ugly, and dank--seemed at first like such an insult to the greatest writer of the rock era. With songwriting royalties alone, Dylan's gotta be worth $25 million, and yet here he was playing in a joint that looks like the box that the Longhorn Ballroom came in. What's more, the acoustics were fairly murky and sightlines were a luxury enjoyed only by taller Dylanites.

The show opener "Down In the Flood" sounded knee-deep in mud, and a slowed-down version of "I Want You" made the words stalk rather than bounce, as on the original. As the show wore on, though, with Dylan's remarkable return to form on cut-to-the-bone arrangements of "I Want You," "Tangled Up In Blue," and "Positively 4th Street," the place started feeling right for this new humility.

Even with decades of experience being adored, Dylan has always seemed uncomfortable as an icon, and the way he's usually dealt with the worship of so many strangers is to be almost hostile in his aloofness. Dylan was one of the first performers to dare to be an asshole in public (or privately, with cameras rolling), and indeed his persona seemed determined to keep the fawners at bay. As spelled out in the chapter of Marianne Faithfull's autobiography--in which she recounts how Dylan once held court over a group of British stars, including the Beatles and Stones--Dylan seemingly hates being the center of attention, but he always takes a seat in the middle.

During the band-crazy '60s, Dylan was an individual, a solo artist, and you got the idea it was because he was utterly awkward when it came to the give and take inherent in musical groups. That the Beatles were a band, with Lennon and McCartney sharing songwriting credits even though they rarely collaborated past the first few albums, was a big part of their appeal. They had a collective personality that made being in a band the coolest thing, but now the Beatles need technology and a passel of lawyers to get back together. Meanwhile, Dylan plays every night in a band of players doing their part to create a seamless jaunt.

Ironic, isn't it, that in the midst of the phony new Beatlemania with the Fab Four moving into the media overkill slot recently vacated by O.J., Dylan showed so much more vitality playing a glorified warehouse on Cadiz Street? Bob Dylan is still a troubadour, still doing what he left Minnesota 35 years ago to do. So what if he can't fill arenas anymore? At least he's not digging up old rejected tapes for some late-life validation.

Dylan was always a step ahead of the Beatles, with his amazingly fertile '65-'66 period (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde) inspiring the lurvable lads to take their songwriting to a deeper level. "I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other," John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in 1969. "I'd be completely free-form in the book, but when I went to write a song I'd be thinking, 'dee duh dee duh do dooo.' It took Dylan to say, 'Oh, come on now, they're the same thing.'"

The Beatles thought they had Dylan pegged like the legs of his black jeans, putting out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at the height of musical freakdom, but then Bobby D hit 'em with John Wesley Harding, an album of acoustic moral parables. That Dylan is now reaching for musical simplification and a renewed, media-free connection with his fans at a time when the music of the Beatles is about to undergo corporate castration in the form of a TV mini-series (November 19-22 on ABC) and CD set is really just par for the course. It's a new morning, and 54-year-old Dylan is still sounding the wake-up call.

Or maybe he's acting on the tip provided by the death of his close friend Jerry Garcia. A big Bible man, Dylan knows all about death and resurrection, and he seems reborn by the recent tragedy. With guitar solos (many by a surprisingly deft Dylan) feeling around the beat on just about every song and a "Cumberland Blues" feel applied to "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Dylan's DMC set certainly paid homage to Garcia. Especially reminiscent of the Grateful Dead was the noodling between Dylan and guitarist John Jackson that sprung out in the middle of both "All Along the Watchtower" and "Silvio." Then there was a lunging, lurching version of "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" that found Jackson, Dylan, and multi-instrumentalist Bucky Baxter pounding their instruments into bowling balls and then throwing them down concrete steps.

His calling card for the ages is as a poet visionary, but at his core Bob Dylan is a rock and roll star. Always has been. Look at pictures and album covers from his early days and tell me he wasn't projecting black leather attitude to go with his blue satin snarl. Dylan has written some great lyrics, but it all starts with his voice, which rages under control and cuts back into meaning like a surfer squeezing every forward drop of a wave. Vanity and greed, the cufflinks of rock, are what set Dylan apart from his idol Woody Guthrie--that and a childhood ripped open like a feather pillow by the music of Elvis, Little Richard, and B.B. King.

"Can you imagine him in a protest march?" Joan Baez once said of the man who wrote the soundtrack of '60s social upheaval. But marching is just walking without going anywhere, and what Dylan did at the DMC was much more meaningful than a hundred impassioned speeches and placards because music was created to go deeper than mere words and actions.

Two Tuesdays back, Bob Dylan reclaimed "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" from the encores of countless thudding metalheads, delivering the tune with none of the phony bombast with which it is performed by the likes of Axl Rose. It was a crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but that's probably not why Dylan did it. After all, the song wasn't performed at the previous two concerts in Austin. Moved by the moment and embraced by the rusted rafters, Dylan just pulled the tune out and grasped it, he and his four bandmates curling together like fingers on a hand.

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