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Concert Review: Dylan brilliant even when less than perfect

Tuesday, November 07, 2000

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

By the time Bob Dylan went electric last night at the A.J. Palumbo Center, the local stop on his never-ending tour was beginning to feel a little like the set he should have played at Newport all those years ago.

While hard-core folkie purists may have had a problem with the drums -- and possibly the volume -- the instrumentation across the front was positively 4th street -- acoustic guitars and upright bass -- as Dylan led a red-hot band through a blues song called "Duncan and Brady," "Mr. Tambourine Man" (deconstructed but unmistakably jingle-jangling) and a haunting train ride through "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."

Guitarist Larry Campbell switched to pedal-steel guitar for a version of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" that was more than just a little reminiscent of "If Not For You," then back to acoustic guitar for "Tangled Up in Blue" and finally the mandolin for "Searching for a Soldier's Grave," a gorgeous bluegrass waltz.

And then, it was on to the first electric number of the set, a Grateful Dead-indebted "Country Pie" from "Nashville Skyline," followed by the only song he played from 1998's "Time Out of Mind," his strongest album since the early '70s at least, if not a little longer. "Standing in the Doorway" proved an early highlight, greeted by a cheer as Dylan took on the opening line with a fire he could have used on "Like a Rolling Stone" and other songs he's more than likely sick to death of singing.

It was Dylan at his poignant best as a vocalist.

As is Dylan tradition, the road-weary classics were frequently deconstructed to the point where little more than the lyrics remained. And every so often, it worked like a charm, no more so than on "Blowin' in the Wind," a song I'd tend to doubt has ever sounded quite so moving or so beautiful.

But sadly, a few of the others could have used a little reverence from the singer for the way he knew the song was meant to sound when he was closer to the point of inspiration. "Like a Rolling Stone" was only recognizable enough to make you wonder when the words had lost all meaning for the man, while "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" took a wrong turn on Highway 61.

And boy, did he play guitar, an instrument he plays at least as well as Master P plays basketball. But hey, it's his name on the ticket. If he wants to get some leads in when they could have gone to Campbell and/or Charlie Sexton, both of whom were just amazing, I suppose it's up to him.

And in the end, as always, it was worth it sitting through the remedial solos and the screwed-up versions of the classics just to get to all the moments that found him redeeming himself: "Forever Young," awash in aching harmonies; a lazy nightclub jazz arrangement of "If Dogs Ran Free"; a breathtaking "Just Like Woman"; and a gently-rocking, smile-inducing version of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat."

In closing, no, the night was not without its flaws, but it was brilliant all the same.

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