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NOT-SO-SURE THING : Bob Dylan Has Performed Some Less Than Legendary Shows, but Don't Write Him Off

September 30, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition

Bob Dylan may be less of a sure thing in concert than any comparably legendary, comparably inspired figure in rock. Actually, looking back over the past 31 years, there really is no figure who has been quite so deeply or frequently inspired.

But Dylan's muse hasn't always followed him on stage. By now, word has gotten around that the eloquence and emotional engagement of which he is capable is not always present in his performances, and that the structures of those inspired songs have at times been not merely reworked (which can indicate a healthy sense of adventure) but muddled beyond recognition.

Perhaps that's why the Pacific Amphitheatre has had to resort, in an unusual move, to offering "special price" tickets for some seats at Dylan's co-headlining show with Santana on Friday. (The two acts have been taking turns on their tour as opener and closer; this time, Dylan goes first). And maybe the iffy nature of live Dylan had something to do with the promoters of the following night's engagement at the Hollywood Bowl running a Calendar ad with media blurbs bolstering Bob. Snippets from presumably recent reviews that found his concerts "focused and high-powered" and "surprisingly heavy on (his) best-known material" were clearly meant to reassure uncertain Dylan fans.

Focus and power certainly were missing the last time Dylan played in Orange County. At the Pacific Amphitheatre four years ago, he supplied little reason for anyone present to want to rush to catch him the next time through. Dylan's new album at the time was the excellent "Oh Mercy," his best work in more than a decade, but he didn't play anything from it. The show was a snooze-inducing affair presided over by a taciturn, unsmiling performer who took no visible pleasure in his work.

But you can't write off Bob Dylan. It's not only that he has a staggering songbook at his disposal. It's that, as offhanded as his attitude toward performance and recording can be, he has done his homework as a musician better than any of his peers. His preparation makes great things possible.

Growing up in a remote and frozen patch of Minnesota, Dylan found heat in the excitement of '50s rock 'n' roll. He found eloquence in traditional folk music, from which he took the license to tell stories and tap the power of the lyric. And he grounded himself in the blues, the mastery of which attunes a musician to the raw, unvarnished expression of deep emotion, and directs a songwriter to distill the essence of human conflicts and passions.

Rocker, folk troubadour, blues man. Add inspiration to all that artistic tilling and fertilization (and inspiration descended on Dylan with almost fearsome regularity from 1962 to 1968, with notable flare-ups thereafter), and you grow a garden.

Dylan's garden has sprouted love songs of great tenderness and biting bitterness, modern prophesies grounded in a moral authority derived from the Bible, and kaleidoscopic dream-narratives in which the images might be haunting incantations evoking mysteries, or playfully scrambled parts in a puzzle that the author himself probably couldn't fully piece together.

Last year's Dylan release, "Good As I Been to You," was a return to his foundations, an affectionate, simple, if backward-looking one-man performance of traditional folk and blues songs. While laughter seems to be forbidden in the stage persona he now cultivates, Dylan showed that he hasn't lost his sense of humor, ending the album with the folk-blues nonsense yarn, "Froggie Went a Courtin.' " One likes to imagine him singing it for his grandchildren.

A second album of traditional material, "World Gone Wrong," is scheduled for release next month. Dylan's own songwriting muse has sung to him only sporadically in the past few years (his last album of new material was the so-so "Under the Red Sky," from 1990). At 52, perhaps he is trying deliberately to repeat the regimen of preparatory roots-immersion that led to his creative explosion during the '60s.

This sort of speculation about Dylan's motives and direction is an oft-played game, given his inclination to say little in public, and to keep things enigmatic when he does.

He seemed, however, to be offering some clues as to his '90s mind-set with "Handy Dandy," a wry, bouncy song from "Under the Red Sky," whose rag-tag protagonist shares some traits with the singer himself (of course, given Dylan's caginess about his own persona, one wonders whether the song reflects what he thinks about himself, or what he thinks Dylan-watchers think).

In any case, Handy Dandy is a fellow with fears to rassle and defenses to keep up. Music's his job, and some unsatisfied inner drive keeps him at it.

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