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After a slow start, Dylan and his band hit high gear

Reprinted from late editionsof yesterday's Globe.

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- It took a while, but the crapshoot that is a Bob Dylan concert paid off Thursday night. The show kicked into gear, appropriately enough, during ``Highway 61 Revisited." But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Dylan arrived, for the umpteenth time this decade, on the heels of Copland's ``Fanfare for the Common Man" and a taped introduction that referenced his dabblings in drugs, Christianity, and commercial irrelevance. It might be time to retire this shtick.

Behind his small electric keyboard, Dylan opened with ``Cat's in the Well, " which wanted with all its heart to be a vivacious blues jam but was sidelined by the Radio Shack-caliber sounds emanating from the singer's instrument. Looking at the bright side, the tinny squeal was a perfect aesthetic match for Dylan's utterances, which ranged from a yelping rap on folk-rocker-turned-Western-shuffle ``You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" to a hiccupping growl for ``Masters of War" and a wheezing drawl during ``Just Like a Woman."

For the first half of the 95-minute set, Dylan's five-piece band was reined in by what appeared to be a conceptual choice to sound as rural and handmade as possible. But the down-home vibe didn't fly in the open-air ballpark. Tentative and poorly mixed, it felt more like a rehearsal for 10,000 than a rock concert.

And then, as if Copland himself had tweaked the board and goosed the band, the show began to swell and soar. The guitarists start ed swapping chunky riffs and warm licks, the bass turned to rubber, and waves of pedal steel lifted Dylan's little piano on its soulful back. A fleshy, forceful ensemble had, quite suddenly, materialized, and it stayed for the rest of the night.

``Shelter From the Storm" was rendered so tenderly that stoners wiped their eyes and parents reached out to their sleeping children. Even the tunes that Dylan transformed into radical new shapes were tethered to the earth, and the past, by the band's tasteful seasonings. While Dylan opted for his now-signature two-note toggle, a ringing acoustic guitar kept ``Tangled Up in Blue" from drifting into the minimalist ether. When the singer rearranged every single vocal phrase on ``A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," the band's chiming chords triggered cell memories, which would have to do. And when floodlights lit up the field during the accusatory chorus of ``Like a Rolling Stone" -- the only moment of pseudo-connection between the audience and the enigmatic icon -- you could almost imagine that Bob Dylan knew, and cared, that we were there.

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