Both Ways Bob

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"We're the loudest ones here! YEEAAAHHH!" a red-faced guy shouted at his buddies a few minutes before Bob Dylan's October 24 appearance at the Fillmore Auditorium. And, for my money, he was right. This quartet of middle-aged yahoos could have given even the most obnoxiously sozzled Parrothead a run for his Margarita -- or, in this case, his whiskey, since the pack's ringleader snuck in a bottle of hooch and was offering anyone and everyone a snort. Nothing spells par-tay like a Bob Dylan show, eh?

Granted, these lugs didn't exemplify the sold-out crowd at the Fillmore. The mix was surprisingly diverse age-wise, with a smattering of teens and a sizable number of twenty- and thirty-somethings joining the touch-of-gray crowd and grizzled Zimmy vets. And no wonder, since Dylan long ago moved beyond the status of mere concert attraction. People don't buy tickets to see him play because he's good live (and he's not -- or at least not by anyone's standards but his). They go because he's an American original who won't be around much longer, and they want to be able to tell their children and grandchildren that they saw him once upon a time. In this sense, he's like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Everyone knows it's gonna fall down someday, so why not stop by before it does?

As for the performance, it was a better-than-average smorgasbord of Dylan eccentricies. For at least two decades, he's played a variation on "Where's Waldo?" known as "What's Bob Playing?" -- and in keeping with the rules of the game, he so radically rearranged several older ditties that even longtime fans may not have recognized them. Truth be told, I didn't figure out that the first song was "Absolutely Sweet Marie," from Blonde on Blonde, until after it had run its course. But I knew instantly that the second number was "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," a cut from one of his worst (and worst-selling) albums, 1978's Street Legal. I just didn't know why he bothered. Even more bizarre was "Joey," a melodramatic apologia for murderered mobster Crazy Joey Gallo that can be found on 1976's Desire. On the original, Dylan draws out the word "JOOOOO-EEEEEEE" via a keening caterwaul that's backed by the lovely voice of Emmylou Harris. At the Fillmore, in contrast, he growled it out like Jimmy Durante: Ah-cha-cha-cha! It was a memorable moment if only because it was so bizarre -- and ultra-altered renditions of "This Wheel's on Fire" and, especially, "Masters of War" were just as engagingly off-kilter.

Predictably, the material from Dylan's latest album, Modern Times, sounded better and was more accessible. After all, his current band has honed tunes like the rollicking "Thunder on the Mountain" and the lovely "Workingman's Blues #2" in the studio and on the road -- plus, Bobby hasn't had the opportunity to mess up their arrangements yet. Dylan, however, had a genuine surprise to offer. As usual, he didn't say a word between songs during the main body of the set. But during the encore, he suddenly got chatty, cheerfully introducing his band and engaging in some cheesy banter about enjoying Denver's great restaurants. Guess his gig as a satellite-radio host is tugging him out of his shell -- after a quarter-century or so.

Oh, yeah: During an encore of "Like a Rolling Stone," the lights were pointed at the audience to encourage a chorus singalong. Problem was, Dylan had fiddled with the song's structure so much that attendees weren't sure when they were supposed to join in or what notes they should try to hit when they did. In the end, about half kept their lips zipped, while the rest chanted as best they could.

The four loud drunks chose the latter course, and if it's likely that the memory of the moment was pretty fuzzy this morning, they'll be able to embellish it years from now, when they're sharing the recollection with family and friends. Betcha that was worth the price of admission. -- Michael Roberts


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