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During the early years of his career, Bob Dylan could do no wrong--but by the late Sixties, he'd figured out a way. Over the last thirty years, he's interspersed good-to-great albums (Blood on the Tracks) with erratic but worthy curiosities (Empire Burlesque), predictable filler (Real Live) and downright stinkeroos (I'm betting even Dylan worshipers haven't spun Saved or Under the Red Sky in ages). But the pride of Duluth, Minnesota, remains pop music's favorite uncle. He used to be enigmatic, but when he appears now on award shows and the like, he's plain old incoherent--and America loves him for it. Time Out of Mind, his latest CD, was a decent but hardly groundbreaking effort, but because it came out shortly after an illness that nearly killed him, the public and the critical establishment collectively declared it a masterpiece. Be as crazy as you want, his fans seemed to be shouting, but please don't die.

At appearances June 5 at the Fillmore Auditorium and June 7 at McNichols Arena, Dylan repaid this loyalty. The concept behind his current tour, which pairs him with fellow tunesmith Paul Simon, is a bad idea, as should have been obvious from the start: When the average person thinks of angelic harmonies à la Art Garfunkel, they don't think of Bob Dylan. Still, Dylan's own music was effortless and approachable, and if too much of it dated from his glory days, his trademark restlessness gave it a fresh jolt. In two separate reviews, a Rocky Mountain News reviewer stated that Dylan spent much of his time in the spotlight grinning, which most certainly was not the case: Anyone who bothered to get close to the stage at the Fillmore (or could afford to do so at McNichols) saw that he's developed a Humphrey Bogart-like facial tic that causes him to intermittently lift his upper lip, thereby baring his teeth in a semi-wince. But his mincing, tentative dance steps and silly poses, executed with the supreme self-consciousness of a shy adolescent checking himself out in a mirror, indicated that he's not ready for the grave quite yet.

The Fillmore set began on a laconically witty note--a cover of "Friend of the Devil" that slyly acknowledged the Grateful Dead's connection to the room--before rolling into a "Mr. Tambourine Man" with a vocal melody completely different from the one he originally wrote. On one level, this tack seemed merely eccentric: It was as if Dylan had decided to sing old words to a freshly penned tune because it was easier than coming up with new ones. But when he performed the same tune at McNichols using yet another melody line, it became clear that he was defending against boredom (the tune is approximately 35 years old) even as he was screwing with the audience's perceptions. At most concerts, audiences cheer familiar riffs or notes at the beginning of songs; at a Dylan show, the crowd often has to wait for the lyric--which is probably just the way Bob likes it.

Not every change was an improvement: A reimagined "Blowin' in the Wind" at the Fillmore felt forced. But the delicate, pedal-steel-flavored versions of "Just Like a Woman" (Fillmore) and "A Simple Twist of Fate" (McNichols) were unexpectedly gorgeous, and the decision to turn "Highway 61 Revisited" (both nights) and "Maggie's Farm" (Fillmore) into ZZ Top-friendly chooglers made a certain kind of sense. Hiring hot-shit guitarist Charlie Sexton to play in the band yet not letting him play lead on most songs didn't, but that's our Bob.

By contrast, the Dylan who invited Simon to join him toward the end of his last encore at the Fillmore and McNichols was almost unrecognizable--diffident, uncertain, polite to a fault. While Dylan is undisciplined by nature, relying on spontaneity to juice him along, Simon is a buttoned-down control freak who does everything he can to keep surprises at bay. On both evenings, Simon wore the same uniform: a standard-issue insecure-balding-man's cap, a cotton windbreaker, and a plain T-shirt neatly tucked into a belted pair of tidy jeans. In other words, he resembled a wealthy executive whose attempt to dress down made him look more uptight than ever, and Dylan was unable to loosen him up. On the surface, their reworking of "The Sounds of Silence" had a reason for being: The tune became a hit only after the late producer Tom Wilson, who'd worked on some of Dylan's early electric recordings, grafted an electric guitar and a rock rhythm section onto it. But for this tour, the song's already modest tempo was slowed down to a funereal pace, with Simon crooning like a student trying not to piss off the librarian and Dylan doing little more than speaking the words in time. Worse was a medley of "I Walk the Line" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," two potentially raucous classics that they treated as if they were thin-shelled eggs, and the Fillmore take of "Forever Young," which undercut the message with a performance more decrepit than Strom Thurmond.

Simon's turn at McNichols was equally tedious: In the midst of "Slip Slidin' Away," my wife, who accompanied me, slipped and slid straight into the land of nod, and she might still be there had I not awakened her. Rumor has it that the catastrophe that was The Capeman, Simon's flop Broadway show, has left him feeling insecure, and he showed it by kicking things off with "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and trotting out warhorses like "Mrs. Robinson." But when he tried to force-feed the throng "Further to Fly," from the yawn-worthy The Rhythm of the Saints, and a couple of Capeman numbers, the patrons responded by falling into their seats more quickly than if they'd just been infected with the Andromeda Strain.

As compensation, Simon offered four songs from Graceland that gave his massive, multi-cultural band a chance to blare. But while Simon obviously understands the joy inherent in African music on an intellectual level, he can't find a way to connect with it personally: He looks more uncomfortable rocking out than Woody Allen. So he hires other people to exhibit the joy for him, and even though his employees simulated it competently, I couldn't help but feel that Simon's show was less a musical celebration than a way to prove to himself that he's not a loser. If that doesn't sound like much fun to you, imagine sitting through it.

For his part, Dylan seems to be enjoying his latest comeback--or at least everything other than the requirement to hug Simon at the end of their mini-duet; on both nights, it was like watching an embrace between Marcia Clark and Judge Ito. He may not be flawless anymore, but he's still alive and kicking. And that's a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

The Denver Blues and Bones Festival takes over the intersection of Acoma Street and 12th Avenue in the Golden Triangle area on Friday, June 11, and Saturday, June 12. Sister Monica and Lazy Lester are among the attractions on day one; John Mayall and Shemekia Copeland highlight the second day. Further facts can be gleaned by dialing 303-478-BLUE--the festival hotline. Be sure to wear an oven mit while holding the phone.

I wouldn't share this information with just anyone. On Thursday, June 10, Hasidic New Wave gives you something to talk about with your rabbi at the Mizel Arts Center (call 303-316-6360 to learn more). On Friday, June 11, My Blind Alley feels its way to Herman's Hideaway. On Saturday, June 12, Four Shillings Short picks up the tab at Penny Lane, and Jux County stakes its claim at Seven South. On Sunday, June 13, Kelly Joe Phelps and the aforementioned Shemekia Copeland belt during an E-Town taping at the Boulder Theater, and Neshama Carlebach performs at the Boulder High School Auditorium for the benefit of the Boulder Jewish Community Foundation and Kosovo Refugee Relief. On Monday, June 14, Rammstein, a band whose concert was nearly canceled in the aftermath of the Columbine High shootings, boldly appears at the Fillmore. On Tuesday, June 15, Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets begins a two-night run at Brendan's, and fONKSQUISH clowns at the No Bozo Jam at Herman's. And on Wednesday, June 16, Transfixer repairs to the Lion's Lair; Norman Jay gets the good times rolling at Soma; Red Tail Chasing Hawks flies to Swallow Hill; and Cricket on the Hill offers Nine Dollar Melon Baller. Operators are standing by.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com.


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