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Bob Dylan couldn't have said it better

Tuesday, January 20, 1998

By Tony Norman

A poetic rumination on the Bob Dylan-Van Morrison concert in New York City Friday, using Dylan's lyrics:

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me. I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to (after six hours of driving). Too bad Pittsburgh's chances of bagging a concert this big were nil, forcing my buddy and I to head for Manhattan's gleaming hills.

It's another Dylan concert in the Big Apple and the waiters are carrying trays of wine through aisles thick with '60s refugees at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Anyone curious about how it feels to be like a rolling stone need only to cross the pavilion to the Garden itself. There, Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie are staging a rival spectacle calculated to really separate Mr. Jones from his money.

Meanwhile, you walk into a room (of 5,700) with a pencil in your hand. A young woman points to your pad and says, "who you writing for, man?"

You try so hard, but you don't understand just what you will say when you get home. Fortunately at 7:44, Van Morrison takes the stage with a nine-piece band. He's wearing shades and an immaculately tailored beige suit.

And you fall and pray, when you hear that sound/And we're walking back to the burial mound/And you shake your head and turn it around/And you see the flames from the burning ground.

The audience is stunned by the sheer beauty of it all. Van Morrison may be "opening" for his good friend Bob Dylan, but he's not conceding an inch of artistic ground.

Shadowed by veteran saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, organist Georgie Fame and backing vocalist Brian Kennedy, the Irish Rover punches out a breathtaking set heavy with new and recent songs: "Fire in the Belly," "It Once Was My Life," "Raincheck," "In the Afternoon," "Why Must I Always Explain?," "Sometimes We Cry" and "This Weight."

But pandemonium speaks when the chords to "Domino" unfurl. A waft of marijuana smoke circulates through your row as the singer covers James Brown's "A Man's World" before returning for several encores including "Have I Told You Lately," "Moondance," "Tupelo Honey" and "Cypress Avenue."

At 9:15, everybody's wondering, including the row of Japanese tourists behind you, how Dylan can possibly top his opening act.

At 9:44, Dylan takes the stage with a four-piece and opens with "Absolutely Sweet Marie." The ghosts of 'lectricity howl in the bones of his face as the houselights refuse to dim.

When the chorus to "Not Dark Yet" rolls around, the audience knows it will have to get used to it. When Dylan sings "Cold Irons Bound," he's enveloped in an eerie red light. But it takes "A Simple Twist of Fate" for his voice to emerge from the mannered static surrounding it.

You've never liked "Silvio" but everybody else does and the bald spots, aging ponytails and pretty young Deadheads nod along.

The quintet becomes a folky acoustic unit for "One Too Many Mornings" and "John Brown," two ballads from the days when he was so much older than he is now.

Dylan turns "Million Miles" into an extended jam before waltzing into a twangy "Just Like a Woman." But the audience has had just about enough of generational politeness and rushes to the front of the stage during the snarling, electrified middle verses of "Highway 61 Revisited."

When "Like a Rolling Stone" rolls around, everyone knows he's not talking about Mick & Keith under the big dome next door. "How does it feel/how does it feeeel" defies explanation once you're invisible and have no secrets to conceal.

Dylan and his band leave the stage at 10:54, but are coaxed into returning for a brutally honest version of "My Back Pages," the song that got him criticized in "Sing Out" 33 years ago.

Instead of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," we get "Love Sick," a brooding new masterpiece.

But it wouldn't be a Dylan concert in the '90s if he didn't perform "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35," the unofficial anthem of a generation missing the days when scoring a bag of enlightenment was a subversive act.

Driving home, you and your buddy discuss the generational resilience of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. It may have been the best concert you've ever seen, but it's an illusion to you now.

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