POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Mellow Bob Dylan Follows His Heart, Music

Times Pop Music Critic

Strange night.

Bob Dylan comes on stage on the eve of the release of his most satisfying collection of new songs in years and he doesn't do any of them.

Instead, Dylan--after years of resisting audience requests for more of his classic '60s material--is devoting so much time to songs from that era, for the second tour in a row, that fans actually began calling out the names of some of his '70s and '80s songs near the end of his concert Tuesday at the County Bowl.

Dylan included only five songs from his post-'60s albums in the nearly two-hour set, and two of them--"Rank Strangers to Me" and "When Do You Leave Heaven"--are old songs by other writers.

Added twist: How does the most acclaimed lyricist of the rock era open the show? With a five-minute instrumental prelude.

By contrast, the Pogues, the spirited Irish-English group that opened the show, only provided mild intrigue. The band performed lots of songs from its new album--but without its lead singer, Shane MacGowan.

After three songs without any explanation from the stage about the missing Pogue, a fan yelled, "Where's Shane?" Replied the pub-folk-rock band's Spider Stacy tersely, "Gone fishin'."

We can't blame the missing Pogue on Dylan. The band's manager, Frank Murray, said after the concert that MacGowan is back in London, suffering from "exhaustion." He said the singer may miss the entire Dylan/Pogues Southern California swing, which continues Friday at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa and Saturday and Sunday at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

(In MacGowan's absence, the Pogues carried on gamely, focusing on songs and vocals by other members of the band--with Stacy handling the vocals on four MacGowan numbers).

But the unpredictability of Dylan's song selection and manner on stage is part of the joy and the frustration of seeing a master at work.

Though Dylan has been on the concert trail for more than a quarter-century, he still moves at his own chosen speed. To keep a flame alive inside, he has to set the agenda, not let the audience do it.

That gives each show a potentially different tone and mood. He and his three-piece group, featuring guitarist G.E. Smith from the "Saturday Night Live" house band, have rehearsed approximately 200 songs, which gives Dylan lots of options.

Rather than come on like a runaway train, as he did in his Pacific Amphitheatre appearance last year, Dylan was in a more mellow mood as he walked on stage at the 4,625-capacity outdoor theater.

Wearing a blue shirt, black vest and black trousers, with a harmonica attached to a holder around his neck, Dylan was so low-key that it was as if he had merely opened his rehearsal-hall door to a few friends.

It's not that the music was ragged, but there was no sense of dramatic presentation. Dylan, who didn't speak to the audience at all between songs, just seemed to move from number to number, as if trying on different coats to see how they fit. You could even tell that he was exploring the lyrics of certain songs to see if he could find new meaning in them.

What made this so compelling was that there were times during the evening when Dylan didn't seem to connect with the song, and rather than try to fake the emotion he simply let the song run its course. This can strike some as careless or indifferent, but in fact it's a sign of the artist's honesty.

Dylan sometimes fell victim to rote. His rendition of "It's Alright Ma" was flat--much like a poet reading one time too many from the printed page--and the closing "Like a Rolling Stone" seemed more obligatory than heartfelt.

But there were other times in the show--especially "Just Like a Woman," "Rank Strangers," "In the Garden," "Queen Jane Approximately" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"--when the music caught hold and you felt the passion and vision of the man who has done so much to reshape rock and pop.

By approaching the music in this honest, open manner, Dylan keeps the music fresh for himself and the audience. Some fans, no doubt, would prefer a more structured and predictable evening, but the pop world is full of performers who accept those guidelines.

Dylan offers an alternative on stage--just as he has on record for three decades. In a pop field overcrowded with gimmicks and strategies, Dylan proceeds on the simplest, truest guideline of all. He follows the music--and his heart.

In retrospect, what's so strange about that?

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