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Dylan

07/05/07 12:00AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Popular success can stifle growth and creativity. But commentator Jay Craven says at least one legendary performer has managed to avoid stagnation.

(CRAVEN) Like thousands of other Vermonters, I attended Bob Dylan's electrifying concert last weekend at the Champlain Fairgrounds - and I got what I came for.

Dylan concerts transport baby boomers to times and places that mark our lives. On Sunday night, I couldn't help remembering the first time I heard "Positively 4th Street." Or the experience I had producing a Dylan concert on the same Essex fairgrounds in 1988.

I preferred the Dylan I saw Sunday - given the hectic behind-the-scenes frenzy of my own production. But I was struck - then and now - how Dylan refuses to imitate even a single song from his earlier life.

Dylan holds his legendary 60's self at a playful and ironic distance. Wisely, his artistic impulse is to rediscover his own music as it suits his perpetual evolution. On Sunday night, he re-worked words and rhythms to "Tangled Up in Blue" and ditched his plaintive accusations in "Like a Rolling Stone" for a bluesy roadhouse groove.

Martin Scorcese's fine documentary, "No Direction Home" captures the poet/songwriter in the moment of his creation. Scorcese recalls Dylan's visits to folk pioneer Woody Guthrie's sick bed, as a pilgrimage to take in Guthrie's tenor and spirit. It was only after Dylan suddenly ended the visits that he set out to create his first songs. He never went back. And while his music was informed by Guthrie, it was completely original.

You can see it on stage as he performs in his heavy dark voice, unsmiling. He improvises each song-not to make it better-just to experience it in new ways-and to challenge his audience to do the same. The fact that Dylan remains on the road shows a simultaneous dark fascination - and strange generosity. Like Miles Davis, he hardly ever acknowledges his audience. But he's there for us, if we can accept him on his own terms. And we do.

Taking my seat at the Essex concert, I also remembered an experience I had, fresh out of college, during the last throes of the 60's peace movement. I was working on a project to help John Lennon organize concert dates across the country - to help end the Vietnam war. A huge event was planned for the 1972 political conventions and Lennon wanted to know if Dylan would join him there.

We knew it was a long shot. Dylan wrote songs that inspired a generation and shaped our culture but he famously avoided any direct role in turbulent 60's politics. So when he agreed to perform, we were ecstatic, but within days Lennon was ordered deported and the project collapsed.

Dylan's music, however, endures. His stunning rendition Sunday of "The Times are A Changin" recalls that time of political ferment. And he made the song freshly relevant - even urgent. Looking around at new legions of young people at the concert, including my fourteen-year-old son, I felt hopeful -- and fulfilled.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.

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