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"Born in Time," however, is a massive revelation. Stiffer than a cheese wedge on 1990's Under the Red Sky (and more sympathetically arranged but never used on 1989's Oh Mercy), "Born in Time" has loosened up considerably in live performance. A stately guitar introduces the opening lick, a pedal steel sweeps in the back door, and Dylan rolls out a beautiful delivery. He sings, "You're coming through to me in black and white/When we were made of dreams" with all the sadness that such resignation brings. But what he's really unintentionally saying is never count him out and never doubt that underneath all the bad production decisions and half-assed playing is often a song as dear to him as "Like a Rolling Stone" was to a generation, and now to classic-rock radio.
He takes spirited stabs at some benchmarks of Sixties legacy. "Ballad of a Thin Man" has all the authority of an old blues song handed down through the ages. The organ trades licks with the sharply overdriven guitar and Dylan crashes in with urgent insistence in his voice. It's no longer the husky bark of the original, but a voice that has taken in the years with patience and trepidation. The elongated jams near the song's end suggests that Dylan has decided that the music is in every way the lyric's equal. He's right. The words are those we've always known -- "Something's happenin' and you don't know what it is" -- but the improvisatory guitar leads take us somewhere completely different. Ditto "Tombstone Blues," which has turned from a manic rave-up into a sashaying shuffle over the years.
"Boots of Spanish Leather" is done with a simple acoustic ensemble, stand-up bass, and acoustic guitars. The melody is ageless, and Dylan sticks to it relatively faithfully, reaching upward for a few new notes here and there. Between this cut and the two other acoustic blues are the Rev. Gary Davis's often-covered "Cocaine Blues" and "Roving Gambler," a track Dylan performed, coincidentally, on the earliest existing document of his beginning repertoire: the May 1960 Karen Wallace Apartment tape in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both folk tunes have been featured in Dylan's live shows for years. The versions here are as worthy as any. Amazing to think how in the mid-Eighties, he was often downright awful, adrift in a funk of doubts. Apparently Tony Garnier, the band's ringleader and bassist, has improved communication between Dylan and his backing group to the point that the music is most sympathetic and among the finest of Dylan's career.
If you had to pick the crown jewel of these performances, the nod goes to "Blind Willie McTell," a tune recorded for 1983's Infidels sessions and released in a solo piano version on 1991's The Bootleg Series. The remaining unreleased electric version, as mentioned, is among Dylan's finest work. This live version is suitable for enshrinement as well. If there's one song that seems to represent Bob Dylan's true ambitions in music, it's this one. "Nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell," he sings, letting us in on the real secret to his own music.
It's Bob Dylan's voice more than anything that has set apart his accomplishments. His songwriting has certainly been without peer, but it's the man's consistent ability to reinterpret the material, to breathe fresh life into a song destined for fossilization, that has led his charge. Others give him awards. He keeps on keepin' on, regardless. Even his live show is deliberately old school. The announcer tells the crowd without fanfare, "Please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan." As if Bob Dylan needed any introduction.
Bob Dylan performs Thursday, January 28 at the National Car Rental Center, 2555 Panther Pkwy, Sunrise. The Brian Setzer Orchestra is the opening act. 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $26.50-$36.50. Call 954-835-8000 for tickets.