- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

A snippet of a conversation between two Dylanologists Friday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion:

Fan 1: “Bob doesn’t seem into it tonight, but the band is hot.”

Fan 2: “He’s had a hot band for the last 10 years.”

Fan 1: “He’s had a hot band since 1966, when he had the Band.”

Fan 2: “Well, there’ve been some lapses.”

The second fan had a point: There was a time — in the mid-1980s, most acutely, and again in the early ‘90s — when it seemed Bob Dylan might just drift away, his legendary status assured, but never again to be augmented.

Then, in 1997, the startlingly good “Time Out of Mind” album began the 10-year hot streak cited by Dylan Fan 2. The two studio efforts that followed — 2001’s “Love and Theft” and last year’s “Modern Times” — have continued Mr. Dylan’s passionate exploration of pre-rock American music, especially the blues.

But, it’s that aforementioned hot band that has most securely won back Mr. Dylan’s status as a still-vital legend. Members have changed, but its basic character, as well as Mr. Dylan’s relentlessly peripatetic touring habits, have not.

The Dylan road show is old-timey, jazzy and unfussy; it’s built of old yellow tweed amplifiers, upright bass guitars and clean playing chops that are as sophisticated as they are intense.

On Friday, Mr. Dylan’s band mates were a color-coordinated clutch of country gentlemen in gray suits and trilby hats; the man himself stood out in a black suit and white hat — for the first four songs at centerstage and on electric guitar; for the remainder of the 90-minute set, he stooped over an electric keyboard at stage left, no more or less prominent, musically, than any other player.

Mr. Dylan, who headlined a triple bill that included a solo Elvis Costello and the young singer-songwriter Amos Lee, was indeed on the listless side — blissfully unconcerned that some in the audience likely had only a tenuous grip on the music they were hearing.

Dylan fans are long accustomed to hearing their favorite songs rearranged, sometimes transformed completely.

This is not always for the better. Set-opener “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35” lacked the playful irreverence of the original, and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” completely shorn of their charming pop melodies, failed to translate as 12-bar blues numbers.

Later came a bafflingly upbeat “Desolation Row,” recognizable only through the emphatic acoustic strumming of rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball.

Part of the problem, of course, is Mr. Dylan’s ravaged voice and the rushed, often comical way he jumbles together lyrics.

It didn’t seem coincidental that the songs that clicked most gamely were those Mr. Dylan has written for the voice he has now: the lovely waltz-time ballad “When the Deal Goes Down”; the descending midtempo lament “Workingman’s Blues No. 2”; and the fast, filthy blues of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” and “Honest with Me.”

The late-arriving classic “Highway 61 Revisited” fit right alongside these newer cuts, with Mr. Dylan finally reaching the level of passion that drummer George Recile, bassist Tony Garnier and lead guitarist Denny Freeman had been goading him into all night. (A consistent bummer Friday was the inaudibility of Donnie Herron, who was seen, but not heard, playing an assortment of instruments including violin, mandolin and pedal-steel guitar.)

Yet, as soon as Mr. Dylan seemed to limber up, the set’s energy slipped away again with the middling, plodding new song “Ain’t Talkin’.” Mr. Dylan closed with the ultimate authority-tweaker “Masters of War,” but the song seemed drained of any real anger or menace.

An encore featuring the Chuck Berry-like “Thunder on the Mountain” and a full-band rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” concluded an evening that reminded a packed house of respectful, enthusiastic Dylan fans that there are bound to be lapses when the singer is 66.

Luckily, there was that hot band.

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