So last night I did something I've never done before: I went to a Dylan concert without a ticket and let the universe take care of the details.

The crowd of five thousand was filing into the Events Center at the University of California Santa Barbara, but I was happily in line too, a good forty minutes before the lights went down. I paid fifty bucks for a $31.50 ducat, not bad, considering that the only middle man was a student who needed the money more than she needed the boyfriend who'd stood her up. What was that about do you think?

This was the eighth show on Dylan's new tour, which opened in Spokane on October 5th and will conclude on November 24 in Boston. It was a bit of a must-see for me because—though I've seen the old spangled dwarf dozens of times over the years—this new band of his, the one that plays on Love and Theft, is his best since The Band backed him up in the 60's and early 70's.

My lack of preparation had its rewards. The venue's a good-sized college gym with general admission, which means that the faithful will stand between the sound board and the stage. What the heck, I figure, if Dylan can stand for two hours, I can too, so I work my way down front. Way down front, where the regulars stake their claims.

This, it turns out, is another, better world, populated entirely by people who've given their lives over to Bob Dylan. I struck up a conversation with a woman in her mid-thirties who hasn't missed a show since 1998. She's on the road year-round with her idol, without benefit of tour bus or hotel accommodations. Clear-eyed, multi-lingual, sophisticated, this is no 60's burnout, merely someone who seeks Dylan's particular brand of truth live on a thrice-weekly basis.

Our chat amuses me, primarily because—though she's intimately familiar with everything Dylan has ever done—she wasn't even born till after he'd released Blonde on Blonde, and she doesn't know the songs by the album from which they're taken. Her Dylan is the Real Dylan, on stage, the flesh-and-blood magician who will weave his spell tonight, as he did last night and thousands of nights before that, from songs that are, in effect, brand new each time they are performed.

This is Dylan's great talent, you know, this reinvention, this reinterpretation of old material. Masters of War is the same song, of course, that I first heard him sing live in 1963, and yet it isn't is it? Not this year. No way.

My new friend greets other friends-in-Bob, just in from San Francisco, where Dylan has played the night before. They're young; surprisingly young to be obsessed by a rock icon from forty years ago. They haven't missed a show since they started what Dylan calls the Never Ending Tour. I begin to get the inklings of something that's very exciting to me: Bob Dylan, at sixty, is having the same effect on young peoples' lives that he did at the height of this career, when he was their age.

I look around: it's a young crowd, but they are buzzed to be there. Most of them have probably never seen Dylan live. This promises to be something more than a museum show. My man will not be casting his pearls before geriatric idolaters. It's a college crowd, and my new friend tells me "Bob" likes college crowds the most.

"It's time," she tells me. "Smell the incense?" I do, of course, but after forty years of Dylan, it's never occurred to me that the incense comes from the stage. It's Bob's incense. See, you hang around long enough, you learn stuff.

I smell the incense and I smell the pot, and I smell the sexy admixture of trendy perfumes, and I wish I could tell you that it takes me back to the Good Old Days, but it doesn't, primarily because somewhere in the back of my mind I can imagine the bomb going off, and the scoreboard crashing down on the heads of the faithful, and Dylan trying to make himself heard above the screams of the injured. Terrorism at a Dylan concert. What a statement. Only a maniac would think that one up.

No. The Good Old Days are gone. At his gig at the Jackson County Exposition Center in Medford, Oregon last week, three security guards wouldn't let Dylan in the building. He didn't have I.D.. The times most definitely have changed.

Which is something Dylan knows as well as any of us of course. He's looked out at the expectant faces of the changing times his entire life. This time, as usual, he's greeted with thunderous applause, which, as usual, he does not acknowledge, and with a minimum of tuning he begins with the same song that's opened every show so far this year, Wait For the Light to Shine, the old Hank Williams song. A country song. A roots tune. Something to get us in the mood:

When the road is rocky and you're carryin' a load
Wait for the light to shine…

Don't forget your brother as you travel through the land
Wait for the light to shine…

If your life is empty and you're on your last go round
Wait for the light to shine…

Wait for the light to shine
Wait for the light to shine
Keep these words before you as you walk that narrow line
Wait for the light to shine

It's a lovely, soothing song, highlighted by Larry Campbell's comforting mandolin. Dylan's voice is ragged, yes, but as usual his phrasing is unique and impeccable. And, as he does throughout the show, he's playing lead guitar.

As if to deflect any concern that we're only gonna hear Country Bob or Old-timey Bob, he launches The Times They Are A-Changin', which—after a botched lyric in the second verse that the crowd probably doesn't even notice—finishes with a masterful harp solo that galvanizes the house. He follows that up with Desolation Row and it is about now that I realize I'm in for one great Dylan show. I haven't heard Desolation Row in concert for twenty years.

They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town

Huge applause here, as recent events tumble through our minds and recede, beaten aside by the awesome band he's got this time around. This tune ends his landmark album Highway 61 Revisited you'll recall, and it's a brutal piece of fractured psychedelia:
Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They're trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She's in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
"Have Mercy on His Soul"
They all play on penny whistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

I submit, as an example of Great Art, this tune, which so enthralled me when it and I were fresh, and seems, incredibly, to resonate even more now, now that the times have changed so utterly.

Dylan knows what we're all thinking. He follows that up with Searching For a Soldier's Grave, a song by Jim Anglin that he's been playing live for about a year and, significantly, has included every night so far on this tour:

Beside each crossmark there all around me
I'll kneel down and gladly say a prayer
For all the dear loved ones home across the ocean
Whose hearts like mine lie buried over here.

Next comes the first song off his new album, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. On the record, this piece feels a little flimsy, a little too whimsical for my taste, but live, with Tony Garnier's threatening bass line, and David Kemper's incessant drums, it just gets inside your heart in a most malignant kind of way. It really is a song about some bad dudes, and the effect is unsettling.

Which Dylan acknowledges by following up with Positively 4th Street, another song I've never heard live, the album version of which it is impossible to improve. Dylan fails to hook me with this one. I don't like the vaguely country treatment, and he throws the words together allinastreamyouknow the way he does sometimes. The song doesn't have that righteous anger—"You've got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend"—that informs the original, and his voice just isn't up to it. Besides, anger isn't what Dylan's about so much anymore. I'm glad to hear it, nonetheless. A museum moment. Moving on.

The old Dylan spell is well and truly woven with the next song however, Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, from Blonde on Blonde, a classic, and Dylan's slow train starts to pick up speed.

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb.
They all fall there so perfectly,
It all seems so well timed.
An' here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again.

He segues through the lilting, romantic Moonlight from the new album, Masters of War with Charlie Sexton playing magnificent dobro, Girl of the North Country, which is a pleasant surprise, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Summer Days (the rockabilly audience-pleaser), the heart-felt Sugar Baby (a sad look out at the world from someplace near the end of the line), Drifter's Escape (which goes all the way back to the last album dannye says he could listen to all the way through, the excellent, magical John Wesley Harding, from 1967), and finally To Be Alone With You from Nashville Skyline, with Larry Campbell doubling on a lovely liquid fiddle.

The encore was comprised of Things Have Changed, a thunderous version of Like a Rolling Stone, an inspiring Forever Young, and a great song from the new record, the hard rocking Honest With Me, with a blistering slide guitar from Larry Campbell.

I'm here to create the new imperial empire
I'm gonna do whatever circumstances require
I care so much for you I didn't think I could
I can't tell my heart that you're no good
Well, my parents, they warned me not to risk my youth
And I still got their advice oozing out of my ears
You don't understand it, my feeling for you
Well, you'd be honest with me if only you knew

It is at this point, without knowing whether there will be another song, that I make my assessment, for what it's worth, of Bob Dylan in 2001, so that you might judge whether you should see him or not: His band rocks very, very hard. The up-tempo stuff sounds like it's ALL from Highway 61 Revisited, so one is struck with the ironic image of this 60-year-old man playing wondrous rock n roll as if he were again a boy. Secondly, Dylan seems most at home with the NEW songs from Love and Theft. Never content to rest on his laurels, NOW is where Dylan keeps his heart, it occurs to me, and I am cheered that the man, like a wily old warrior for truth, will get up and get back out on the road again, informing yet another generation of searchers.

As if he has not forgotten that his job always is to resonate with me, just as my job is to try and figure out just exactly what it is he's doing this time around, Bob Dylan sends us all—college student and groupie, mid-life reminiscent and brand-new fan—out into the October night on the wings of one of his greatest, that we might not forget the point of it all:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Go see Dylan meditate on Love and Theft. You won't need to call Ticketmaster, for the universe will provide.

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