Seeing a Legend in Action: Bob Dylan

One of the things I've always loved about hanging out with my uncle Shane is that he hit the age when a man starts digging music in the early 1970s, when legendary songs were being made and performed.

He has a book of ticket stubs for every show he's ever attended, and I'm constantly asking him about those concerts, which range from Bruce Springsteen to Elton John to Neil Young to Hot Tuna. I've dreamed of one day having a book like that to show my kids or nephew someday.

I've seen my fair share of great shows. I rocked out to a four-hour Pearl Jam concert at Madison Square Garden. I've sat down for James Taylor's beautiful, soaring, acoustic shows. I've jammed out to Southern space-rock band My Morning Jacket and recently saw Midwestern garage-blues rockers The Black Keys at a small club in Manhattan.

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But, unlike my Uncle Shane, I had never seen a "legend" in concert. And I had no foreseeable prospects until a friend called me a few weeks ago and said he had scored two tickets to see Bob Dylan in Philadelphia.

I jumped at the chance.

Consider the facts: It was the last show of Dylan's U.S. tour supporting his latest album, "Modern Times"; he's 65 years old and who knows when and if he'll tour big again; the tickets were a mere $40. And, of course, he's Bob Dylan.

To put it mildly, I didn't think twice.

But I had some weariness mixed in with my expectations. As soon as I told some friends, the insults began.

"Dylan? Guy can't sing anymore. Good luck with that."

"You don't know what a drag it is to see him."

"Yeah, too bad it's not the 1960s anymore."

Well, that last one is true. Dylan released his biggest album, "Highway 61 Revisited," in 1965. That's a long time ago. His voice has slowly changed from smooth and soft to rough and scruffy. He sure isn't the same Dylan.

But he's coming off the release of a trifecta of wonderful albums, the most recent of which is regarded by many music critics to be the album of the year.

I also have a boss whose opinion I trust on these things. And he assured me he had just seen Dylan, and that it was more than impressive. Besides that, he said, "It's Bob Dylan; you can tell your kids you saw Bob Dylan."

You couldn't deny that.

I was already a Dylan fan and had heard roughly a quarter of his vast catalog — upward of 50 albums in all. I realized it would be nearly impossible to cram in every song of his before I saw him, but I did my best buying and downloading leading up to the show and felt pretty prepared.

The crowd was an odd mixture: kids with their hippie parents, people who are still living in the '60s and young people like my friend and me who were there to witness a legend on his last legs.

When Dylan came out, the place went crazy. Two kids sitting in front of me, no older than 10 — there with their parents, of course — were standing, clapping and yelling. The hippies went nuts in their bellbottoms and tie-dyed shirts. I was trying to observe the crowd, and then Dylan walked out. And from that moment on, every eye turned to him. And every eye stayed there.

The opener, "The Levee's Gonna Break," which is off his most recent album, sounded different from the album version -- louder and harder.

The band moved quickly through a variety of hits, old and new: "Highway 61 Revisted," "Tangled Up in Blue" ... and my highlight of the night, "Thunder on the Mountain," another track off "Modern Times."

He encored with "Thunder," then "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower."

Every member of the band is a superb musician. The lead guitarist, Denny Freeman, would have your attention all night if he played with another band. And the sound was much louder than I anticipated. This was rock 'n' roll.

As the show progressed, I realized Dylan was a different man. The songs were mostly slower than I had heard him play before: bluesier and more jazz-like. His voice doesn't quite fill the room when the band plays full speed, and the musicians quiet down when Dylan picks up his harmonica, so you can hear it clearly.

But they're still Dylan's songs. He can still deliver a line.

And he has stage presence. All he's doing is standing there at his keyboard, moving his hips and feet around a little and singing. But you are transfixed.

People may say Dylan's lost a step and can't perform like he used to, but they don't get it.

He's Bob Dylan.

After this show, I think I'm ready to start my own ticket stub album.

* * *

Set list for Bob Dylan and His Band at Wachovia Spectrum on Nov. 18, 2006:

"The Levee's Gonna Break"
"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"
"High Water (For Charley Patton)"
"To Ramona"
"Rollin' and Tumblin'"
"Desolation Row"
"Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)"
"Ballad of Hollis Brown"
"Highway 61 Revisited"
"Spirit On the Water"
"Tangled Up in Blue"
"Nettie Moore"
"Summer Days"
"Encore Break"
"Thunder On the Mountain"
"Like a Rolling Stone"
"All Along the Watchtower"

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