Mumbling toward Bethlehem
When he wants--when the mood strikes him and the lights aren't too bright and the planets are aligned and the promoter's check doesn't bounce--Bob Dylan can give you a great show. Not merely shadowdancing on stage, not just Image and Legend going through the motions, but a show resonating with conviction and passion, drama, sin and salvation, horror and humor, love and disgust. When Dylan is having one of those nights and not hiding behind his hat and using his guitar as a shield to fend off an audience that so desperately wants to embrace him flaws and all, you will never experience a better rock and roll concert.

Bob Dylan, you see, is not merely a breathing fossil, his work not just a collection of dusty echoes; he can't be dismissed because of his age or ignored because of his inconsistency, because no one should be expected to remain forever young. But each time he steps up to the microphone and coyly slinks into another song, whether it's "All Along the Watchtower" or "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" or even a so-called throwaway like "Ring Them Bells," he still finds the power in the words and the passion in the delivery; he continues to reinvent the ancient themes and evoke new interpretations from words he wrote as a young man or wizened legend, just as he forever insists on manipulating perceptions of his own image.

Whether you perceive him as lunatic or genius or put-on (in truth, he's all three and always has been), Dylan's finally become the grand old bluesman of the variety he always worshipped and adored--his nasal, mumbly voice reeking with the stench of gained knowledge and profound experience, the unintelligible words like blanks for the longtime audiences to fill in with their own interpretations. Even this year's Unplugged disc comes with the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," so convinced is Columbia Records of a new generation's unfamiliarity with the words and inability to decipher them out of Dylan's mumble.

But Unplugged is also an amazing record and provides the most recent evidence that Dylan has not yet given up the good fight, that he's still "lookin' into the lost forgotten years for dignity." Where Dylan's been known of late to electrify and destroy his old songs, reducing "Masters of War" on the Grammys a few years ago to rubble and roar, he breathes astonishing new life into the well-trod ("Rolling Stone," "Rainy Day Women," etc.) and the more obscure ("Tombstone Blues," "Desolation Row," "Shooting Star"), proving himself still the master storyteller whose characters mean nothing without their creator there to bring them to life. His voice has rarely sounded so beautifully croaked, his guitar playing so fluid, his delivery so impassioned. He ain't knockin' on heaven's door yet, not by a long shot.

Bob Dylan performs November 7 at the Dallas Music Complex. Ian Moore opens.

--Robert Wilonsky