BLOOMINGTON — Arguably the most influential musician of the 20th century paid a visit to central Illinois over the weekend as part of a "music for the ages" tour.
Bob Dylan stands alone as a performer who has run the table: a Woody Guthrie-devotee who electrified folk music, brought poetry to the masses, rearranged rock 'n' roll and, like the Energizer bunny, just keeps on going.
Standing tall in dark suit and hat, Dylan took the stage before a near-capacity U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington Saturday for a show that also featured young Amos Lee and Elvis Costello.
The freely acknowledged irony at a Dylan concert is that the top songwriter of our era is consistently hard to understand. You go in knowing that. All those masterful lyrics spin out across the auditorium in a garbled haze, but no one seems to care.
One comes to a Dylan concert in 2007 not so much to hear the words as for a reaffirmation of the spirit of the 1960s and to actually behold a cultural icon as he carries on in the 21st century.
The icon occupies center stage fronting a five-man band that powers through every number. That's what you get: Dylan never addresses the crowd, either to introduce songs or to just say hello. The lights go up and we get a song. Then the lights go down before coming up again for another number. He did introduce his talented group of sidemen, however.
The show started with "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35" where "everyone must get stoned" followed by another classic, "Don't Think Twice, It's All right," where I actually recognized a verse or two.
With "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," you realize that Dylan is not running an oldie circus here but a rock 'n' roll show. That may be an old guy up there on stage with a delivery somewhere between George Thorogood and Tom Waits, but he can still play and his band is amazing. Each song closed with a driving instrumental that had the devoted up and moving on the coliseum floor.
A word on the Bloomington crowd: the all-white cross-section of straights, bikers, college kids and flower children long gone to seed drank a lot of beer and moved around quite a bit and generally had a good time.
It wasn't all a trip down memory lane as Dylan blended in material from recent albums including last year's Modern Times with the selection, "When the Levee Breaks," an old blues song last covered by Led Zeppelin.
The concert may have been best defined by the show closers, "Masters of War," the 1963 statement about military excess, and "All Along the Watchtower," first heard on the easygoing 1967 release John Wesley Harding but later made famous by Jimi Hendrix. It's the Hendrix version that came to mind with Dylan's hard-rocking aggregation.
Overall, the show was a study in contrasts. From Amos Lee, things started with Lee's interesting songs backed by a good band blessed with a wonderful keyboard player.
Elvis Costello then bounded onto the stage alone to perform a no-nonsense set that was just Elvis and his guitar doing songs. Unlike Dylan, he was chatty. We learned about his dad's 80th birthday and his twin 10-month sons by wife Diana Krall. He pushed for (and got) audience participation, served up the Stones' "Not Fade Away" and even worked Bloomington-Normal into one of his songs.
Combine all that with the icon and you had a big night of music in the heartland. And an inspiring one: Now I want to get out that Highway 61 Revisited album and actually hear what Dylan had to say.