- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

“Is it raining where you are?” rookie disc jockey Bob Dylan asked in the middle of his weekly “Theme Time Radio Hour,” which debuted last night on XM Satellite Radio to introductory booms of thunder and the dibble-dibble-dopp of rainfall.

This week’s theme was weather, affording the rock legend the chance to wax funky-philosophical about the world’s climate-borne sorrows and catastrophes. Chicago blues hero Muddy Waters’ “Blow Wind, Blow” kicked off the eclectic playlist, while Fats Domino’s “Let the Four Winds Blow” more palpably evoked post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Theme Time” is old-fashioned in both mood and content, despite brief appearances by contemporary celebrities. (Comedian Sarah Silverman contributed a “You’re listening to …” announcement, and future shows promise similar fare from Elvis Costello, Charlie Sheen, Jimmy Kimmel and others.)

With its vintage bumper music and weather-report jingles, it is, one gathers, supposed to sound timeless, or at least like what Mr. Dylan remembers from his rural Minnesota childhood. It’s equal parts Sunday-morning revival hour and National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” and the net effect strongly recalls the voiceovers that Tom Waits did for Jim Jarmusch’s movie “Mystery Train.”

But this is Bob Dylan all the way, and the show therefore has a singular likability, a folksy erudition, in its favor.

Here he is introducing Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Summer Rain”: “It’s hard for people who have not lived on the West Coast to realize how radical the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. West Coast weather is the weather of catastrophe. Santa Ana winds are like the winds of the apocalypse. But the summer wind that Frank is singing about may be a little lighter. Come on in, Frank.”

Mr. Dylan, who will record each show digitally from parts unknown, spends much of his song-to-song transition time reciting lyrics, taking care to enunciate them with gusto; in the case of Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun,” he does so in Italian.

In the low-key style of the best DJs, he generously mentions unsung recording personnel and traces the various incarnations of his song choices. (Joe Jones’ “California Sun,” for instance, perambulated through the repertoires of the Rivieras and the Ramones.) There also are compelling bits of historical marginalia, such as Prisonaires singer Johnny Bragg’s Jim Crow woes.

Those looking for anything personal about Mr. Dylan will come away disappointed — unless, that is, a sustained peek into the man’s record collection counts as a revelation. It turns out Mr. Dylan has something like affection for the 1950s and early ‘60s radio fare he seemed to dismiss in his recent “Chronicles” memoir as “empty pleasantries.” “You Are My Sunshine,” anyone?

Next week’s “Theme Time” will be devoted to mothers, in honor of Mother’s Day. Other themes Mr. Dylan will treat include cars, whiskey and police.

Is it worth finally taking the plunge — or more accurately, the ascent — from terrestrial to satellite radio? That’s up to you and your gasoline-crunched budget. I will say that Mr. Dylan’s “Theme Time” probably is the only place on radio of any medium where Jimi Hendrix rubs shoulders with Judy Garland.

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