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Forever a folkie, and now a little funky

Bob Dylan, 65, tops his `voice-of-a-generation' crown with a rhythm- nation party hat in Long Beach.

October 23, 2006|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

In the '60s, when Bob Dylan first sang "Like a Rolling Stone" and other songs that soon became sociopolitical anthems, there was always a real possibility that audiences would charge out of his concerts ready to go marching in the streets.

He still crafts music that can touch, question, irritate, prod, enlighten and inspire as effectively as ever, as he's shown resoundingly in his new "Modern Times" album, which got generous exposure during his thundering performance Saturday at the Long Beach Arena.

But it often seems that the music he's putting forth now would more likely inspire dancing in the aisles. And that's a good thing.

Dylan, now 65, has been riding a wave of creativity for at least a decade now, and a big part of it seems to flow from the relentless touring he's been doing in the company of a revolving lineup of musicians thoroughly grounded in the myriad facets of American roots music that's always been his touchstone.

This has given a new vibrancy and soul-deep resonance to the music to which he sets his ever-challenging lyrics. So words that fully engage the intellect are set to rhythmic grooves that burrow in and invite the heart and feet out to the dance floor.

The potential was there Saturday, what with the general-admission open seating on the arena floor in front of the stage where Dylan and his taut and resilient five-piece band held forth for just under two hours. But only a few brave souls accepted the music's invitation to move to what was played as they listened to what was sung.

Perhaps they were simply taking him at his word in "Nettie Moore," one of four new songs from "Modern Times" that he included: "She says, 'Look out, daddy, don't want you to tear your pants / You could get wrecked in this dance.' "

The framework of his sets took shape last spring when he pulled together a new group of touring players. It still includes such cornerstones as "Highway 61 Revisited," "Just Like a Woman" (given an exceptionally poignant reading this time), "She Belongs to Me" and, during the encore segment, "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." But since the release in August of "Modern Times," he's steadily been inserting the new songs, and Saturday those included "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "When the Deal Goes Down" and "Thunder on the Mountain," giving his shows a welcome shot of currency. Add a couple of numbers from 2001's "Love and Theft" and the weight splits almost evenly between new-millennium material and his '60s and '70s classics. That's especially refreshing given it wasn't so long ago that he downplayed even strong recent material in concert in favor of more time-tested work.

Nowadays, the absence of this Dylan standard or that one from a given night's show isn't really an issue, given all the richness in his latter-day explorations of the rewards and disappointments of coming to terms with life sans its comforting illusions.

As always, there were lines that seemed written for the social or political moment. On Saturday, he spat out the words to the 5-year-old "Lonesome Day Blues," from "Love and Theft": "I'm gonna spare the defeated, I'm going to speak to the crowd / I am goin' to teach peace to the conquered / I'm gonna tame the proud." That's always been Dylan's genius -- recognizing, as his mentor Pete Seeger did in setting the words of Ecclesiastes to music, that in this world, there will always be "A time to kill, a time to heal, a time to laugh, a time to weep." And, as Dylan is demonstrating forcefully as he moves through his 60s, a time to dance.

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