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As if to reinforce his renewed emphasis on the personal as opposed to the political, Dylan closes with a sardonically rockin' "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," making the refrain sound more like getting pelted with rocks than taking a hit off a reefer.
DYLAN AT STAPLES CENTER:
MOST LIKELY HE'LL GO HIS WAY
More "Things Have Changed," The More
They Stay The Same
A funny thing happened to Bob Dylan on the way to becoming an icon. He turned into a muso.

The voice of a generation's audience is now pretty evenly divided between nostalgic boomers and fresh-faced twentysomethings left with nothing to believe in after the demise of the Grateful Dead and Phish's recent moratorium from touring.

Zimmy's appearance Friday night at Staples Center—his first arena concert since the '99 tour with Paul Simon—comes on the heels of his most acclaimed and best-selling album in years, Love and Theft (Columbia). The record, which came out Sept. 11, seemed to uncannily prophesy the day's tragic events in its apocalypse-laced lyrics and subterranean homesick blues.

With his sturdy five-piece band in tow—guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier and David Kemper—Bob took the stage in an open-necked white shirt and waist-length black suit with white piping along the breast and side pockets and a stripe up each side of his pants.

The concert began with the Fred Rose (of famed Nashville publishing company Acuff-Rose) country gospel hymn, "Wait for the Light to Shine," then into an acoustic "Song for Woody," from Dylan's self-titled '62 debut. As is his custom, the first few bars of the mournful "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is almost unrecognizable, though the fans cheer the line, "Even the President of the United States must stand naked." The twangy strains of the first performed song from Love and Theft, "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," make a seamless transition from old to new.

The crowd is enthusiastic, but mostly seated, until Dylan blows some characteristic harp for the first time to fuel "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)." The song was originally from '64's Another Side of Bob Dylan, but Dylan also performed it on the classic "Royal Albert Hall" album with the Hawks, and then later with The Band on The Last Waltz. The energy remains high with an incredible reading of the remarkably prescient "High Water," as Campbell moves over to banjo and the lines, "wanted dead or alive," resonate with the best of Dylan wordplay.

"Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" moves into an acoustic "Masters of War," still damning almost 40 years after its debut on Bob's '63 Freewheelin' album. "Mama You Been on My Mind," an outtake from the Bringin' It All Back Home sessions later covered by Rod Stewart, offers more Dylan harmonica magic. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," with Campbell moving over to pedal steel, leads into two new songs—the bluesy swing of "Summer Day" and the sweet album-closing meditation, "Sugar Baby." John Wesley Harding's "Drifter's Escape" and "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat" close out the set, with Dylan introducing the latter by saying, "Madonna was here telling everybody to think globally It's time to rethink that."

And then, just as he did some 35 years ago, when he first confounded the folkies by turning his back on politics, plugging in and turning on, he returns for the encore with his Academy Award-winning anthem "Things Have Changed." A completely revamped "Like a Rolling Stone" leads into an elongated jam on "Knockin on Heaven's Door," featuring Sexton's soaring electric guitar, climaxed by a searing "Honest With Me," or, as Bud Scoppa likes to call it, "Highway 61 Revisited Revisited." The emphasis on "Blowin' in the Wind" is completely changed, with Dylan going up the scale rather than down on the famous refrain, a jarring reminder that the more things have changed, the more they stay the same.

As if to reinforce his renewed emphasis on the personal as opposed to the political, he closes with a sardonically rockin' "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," making the refrain sound more like getting pelted with rocks than taking a hit off a reefer. Dylan's band is probably his best since The Band, and he seems to revel in leading them through their jammin', Dead-like paces.

As always, the inscrutable singer-songwriter doesn't leave the audience emotionally drained like a Springsteen or a U2, but rather exits without a visible show of feeling, leaving the crowd questioning what they just saw and heard. If Dylan's now reconciled to the minstrelsy/entertainment aspect of what he's doing (hence the title of his recent album, based on a history of performing in blackface), he now realizes even his current whimsy carries, if not metaphysical, at least musical weight. In the end, for Dylan, everybody still must get stoned—whether they like it or not.

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