Bob Dylan is playing mostly covers these days. Unlike most rock performers, when he goes out on tour he rarely does more than one or two songs off his latest album (or three or four most recent albums). What he does instead is choose–with varying degrees of creativity from tour to tour and night to night–from a vast catalog of a generation’s classics, some 350 to 400 songs in all. They are his songs, of course, but the great majority of the interesting ones were written by someone else a long time ago.

There need be no shame in this, but it can get to be a problem for one who’s inclined to laziness. For a while, and particularly following his welcome return from his religious obsessions of the early 80s, it seemed that Dylan was on a gentle coast to retirement–he’d keep busy, play on the all-star records, raid the vaults occasionally for a new album, and tour when convenient, letting an accomplice like Tom Petty carry most of the load. The shows were just terrible. Once in a while Dylan would pick up an acoustic guitar and genuinely sing a genuine classic–I saw him do “To Ramona,” from his fourth record, Another Side of Bob Dylan, on a Tom Petty tour, for example–but too often it would just be the same old standards sung in the same old nasal, singsongy drone that drives some of us to distraction. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing old songs; indeed, Dylan was soon to prove otherwise. But for six or seven years there it seemed that he had little interest in the songs; they were hardly his anymore.

As a generic protest song, for example, Dylan would often throw in a version of “Masters of War.” It’s a rant, and dated as hell, but it lent itself to the sort of false-feeling rock “groove” Dylan seemed to be seeking in those shows, so he disinterred it frequently through the decade. Another favorite of his during this time was “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and no song better illustrates the cruel changes that time can work on a songwriter. When Dylan snarled “Something’s happenin’ but you don’t know what it is,” Mr. Jones was the symbol of a pathetically out-of-it establishment. But in the 80s, that establishment was–what? Out-of-it? Don’t be silly. Besides the fact that a big hunk of it now attends Bob Dylan concerts as a matter of course, the establishment’s single most important yearning is to be with it–not, of course, for existential reasons, but rather as a necessary modern corollary to profit-making. Rap? You can find it in a McDonald’s commercial. American roots-rock? Miller sponsors it. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan? Presidential candidates fight to quote them. “Ballad of a Thin Man” isn’t relevant anymore–it’s a chunk of nostalgia. But Dylan kept on singing it, as though he hadn’t noticed or didn’t care.

Last year, suddenly, all of this changed with an extraordinary tour that teamed Dylan with a stripped-down, three-piece band led by Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith. That tour began in northern California; I was able to see several of its early shows, and I felt I was watching Bob Dylan reclaim his past. Each night opened with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the exquisite, mocking, almost mythopoeic rendition of subculture paranoia that begins, “Johnny’s in the basement mixin’ up the medicine.” And Dylan didn’t whine it–he declaimed it, he yelled it. And almost every song that followed had a special spin, a special frisson: “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” a song that, like “Homesick,” Dylan had rarely, if ever, played live; “Gates of Eden” done in a full rock workout; “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a keening plaint from the first album; the forgotten “Watching the River Flow,” from Greatest Hits, Vol. II; a live-wire version of “Joey,” a song that hadn’t been heard since the Rolling Thunder tour of 1975.

To me, that tour represented Dylan coming to terms with his past: he accepted that his new records and new songs were now secondary, and that those who still came to see him came not just to hear “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but also to catch just a whiff of the power and knowledge and truth that Dylan once exuded. These are confines, true; but within them there is more than enough room to move, particularly if Dylan takes the opportunity to plan out his shows, rethink his oeuvre, and do his best to once again speak through his songs. This year, like last, he is presenting a show that is certainly the equal of anything he’s done since that legendary Rolling Thunder Revue.

One song that’s conspicuously absent this year is “In the Garden,” a humorless version of the gospel that has long served as Dylan’s all-purpose sign of religious commitment. He’s played the song as a closer in almost every one of his concerts in the last ten years; often he’ll play a crowd pleaser like “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then, over the applause, say something like, “Well, we played that one, now we’re going to play this one.” Meaning, as near as I can tell, “Well, that was your anthem, and now here’s my anthem.” The problem is that the song is pretty much oatmeal. The lyrics comprise a series of questions, like “When they came for Him in the garden did they know?”–i.e., “When they came for Him in the garden did they know it was such a terrible thing, blah blah blah, that I, Bob Dylan, would be singing songs about it 2,000 years later?” This is the sort of received, sanctimonious thinking that makes Dylan’s gospel stuff such dreck; it’s the same sort of smug crap that’s been shoved down people’s throats by every manicured rascal with a Bible since the poor Guy died. For the past ten years, that’s what Dylan has wanted to say, and that’s how he said it.

This year, praise Jesus, “In the Garden” is gone, and in its place is a creatively chosen and ever-changing array of songs that are performed with something approaching abandon–Dylan’s show of the decade. The first night of the tour, in Peoria, was a bit problematic in the end, though it started out winningly. After “Pancho and Lefty,” an old Townes Van Zandt song, Dylan played a number that none of the people in my group knew: it could have been another, more obscure, cover, or possibly a new song. The lyrics went something like “You tell me you’re sorry / Now that it’s over / You tell me you’re wiser / You tell me you’re older.” After that one, whatever it was, he played a dense, hard-to-follow version of “I Believe in You,” one of the lesser religioso numbers from Slow Train Coming. By this point the Peoria audience’s collective jaw had dropped. Dylan was standing, courtly and lean, in a frock coat, black jeans, and boots; he was effectively backlit, and looked the part. But nearly 15 minutes into the show he had played three unrecognizable versions of three songs that the great majority of the audience couldn’t have known in the first place. It was kind of funny, and might have produced some fireworks if Dylan had kept it up. But mindful, perhaps, that he was playing for an at least semirural crowd, a large part of which might not have seen him before, he eventually gave the capacity crowd (about 15,000 in the Peoria Civic Center) the greatest-hits show it wanted. And these were literally greatest hits–two-thirds of the rest of the show was songs from Dylan’s two greatest-hits albums. He played 15 songs in an hour and a half, which is generous by Dylan standards–last year he regularly enraged crowds by playing 50 or 60 minutes.

The sound was muddy but the band was tight–besides Smith on guitar, there was a session rhythm section of Christopher Parker on drums and Pete Gardiner on bass. What high points there were included a funny version of “Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat,” Dylan’s nuclear-strength satire attack on infidelity and women’s fashion, and a very loud version of “Highway 61 Revisited,” with G.E. making a great deal of noise on slide guitar. They broke for the obligatory three-song acoustic set and ended with a rousing version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that brought the crowd to its feet. He encored with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and then “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Maggie’s Farm” with full band.

The following night at Poplar Creek–in front of maybe 7,000 people, less than a third of capacity–was an entirely different show. (The low turnout, incidentally, made getting to Poplar Creek relatively trouble-free–a far cry from the New Order concert two nights earlier, when concertgoers waited for up to two hours to get into the parking lot. This is a situation that could be easily avoided if the Poplar Creek management would shell out for a few traffic cops.) There was no real moment of magic at the Peoria show, and Dylan frequently refused to sing, lapsing into that whine. But at Poplar Creek Dylan was committed and the show was a gem, stupendous and daring.

What set that second show apart–what sets this tour apart–is a thoroughgoing commitment to rock and roll. Dylan and Smith play charging, throaty Stratocasters for most of the show. The sound is stripped to the bones; where for most of his electric career Dylan has played with five- to ten-piece backing bands, the tour now is cozy and intimate. Last year Dylan eschewed even a harmonica; this year it appears frequently, and as he’s grown comfortable playing with Smith, his guitar playing has gained confidence as well. The small ensemble–one is tempted to call it “The Bob Dylan Combo”–has a friendly, ragged feel, with few practiced beginnings or endings. Rather Dylan holds a chord, strumming it aimlessly, as G.E. looks anxiously on to see what song he’s about to break into.

The importance of Smith cannot be overestimated. He was once reportedly the mainstay of the Hall and Oates band, a group that for some reason I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing in concert. Besides that, Smith’s other work has been as a minor session player in minor bands and work in two obscure groups, the Scratch Band and Rue Morgue. On Saturday Night Live his guitar playing is often overshadowed by his mugging and posturing–let’s face it, he’s a drip–but with Dylan he operates on near-genius level, accomplishing a task that has already defeated Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead, and God, Dylan’s other recent tour mates, and that is persuading Bob Dylan to get his act together. Onstage Smith is a sheepdog, a therapist, a mother hen, and an amanuensis all at once. Last year’s tour was plagued by Neil Young sitting in on a couple of dates; Young was cool to see but his guitar kept making hash of the arrangements, and Smith had to spend most of his time making sure Young caught the changes. Several times Smith simply reached out and actually clamped his hand over the neck of Young’s guitar–a thankless task, as I’m sure it turned out, but a necessary one at the time.

Dylan, having treated the downstaters to the easy stuff, gave the Poplar Creek crowd the gems. He did two things: he played some of his greatest seldom-heard songs, cranking them out with new arrangements, and he played some of his lamer recent material, turning up the volume. In the first category we had songs like “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “Tears of Rage”; in the second, songs like “Serve Somebody” and “Silvio.” Now there aren’t too many songwriters who can lay claim to material as varied in quality as “Hollis Brown” and “Silvio,” but Dylan made it all work.

Dylan played “Hollis Brown” at Live Aid, and it was recently covered on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon album; it’s the story of a collapsed farmer who massacres his family. On record it’s moody and textured, an exercise in folk mythology. Live, Dylan turned it into an all-out rocker, complete with soaring guitar breaks. It sounded like “Born to Run.” “Silvio,” one of the songs Dylan wrote with the Dead’s Robert Hunter, was a similar surprise. It’s a loathsome song, but with G.E. and the boys it was cacophonous, perhaps the evening’s high point. “Dylan and the Stooges,” said a friend; I thought it sounded more like he had the Jam backing him up. The Bob Dylan Combo is like a punk band, grabbing classics and forcing them through the wringer. Smith was playing something close to a buzz-saw guitar; the rest of the band got into a lockstep groove, the guitar changes clanking like machinery.

“Tears of Rage,” a beautiful song Dylan wrote with the Band’s Richard Manuel for The Basement Tapes, was unrecognizable: it just roared by. “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” a song Dylan resurrected for last year’s tour after a sizzling cover by Jason and the Scorchers, was similarly transformed. Even lesser material like “Seeing the Real You at Last,” from the 1984 album Empire Burlesque–a song as superficial and off-putting as its title suggests–came off well.

Dylan remains hard to like. It’s hard to forget about all the dreck he’s sloughed off on us these past ten years, and harder still–because those original images from 20 years ago were so strong–to swallow the way his opinions and outlook have changed. I was reminded of this during “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” the highlight of the acoustic set he played at Poplar Creek. It’s one of Dylan’s two or three most powerful songs, a rant of unequaled proportions and a “truth attack,” in Robert Shelton’s phrase, on a scale of “Like a Rolling Stone.” (Someone once wrote that “It’s Alright Ma” “is to capitalism what Darkness at Noon is to communism.”) The song (from the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home) was originally all the more powerful for the carefully articulated restraint with which Dylan sang it; a few years later, during his 1974 tour with the Band, it became the highlight of the show (and the live album, Before the Flood) in a scabrous and unrestrained solo spot. Dylan’s version at Poplar was the restrained one, sung carefully (except for a few blown lines). As he sang, I was thinking about the last couplet of the song: “And if my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Those were scary words in 1965, and scary today as well, as crazos run the world into the 21st century. Then I realized why we don’t feel the same kinship with Bob Dylan. Me, I’ve got some dangerous thought-dreams myself these days, and if I had to go to the guillotine, Bob Dylan–who shills for Israel, supports a crackdown on sexuality, bashes unions, and sucks up to wacko fundamentalists–would be one of the executioners.

He came out of the acoustic set with a pretty “Girl From the North Country,” one of his favorites, and the band came back to attack “Pledging My Time,” a gem from Blonde on Blonde. The set closed with “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then Dylan came back to sing an encore similar to Peoria’s, with a rocking “All Along the Watchtower” thrown in at the end. Dylan is still a star, even if his politics are bad and his music is worse. I don’t think his muse has left him: I think his recent troubles have had more to do with his own lack of will. He, like us, isn’t sure what it means to be Bob Dylan these days. Now he’s figuring it out: this is me, these are my songs.

Perhaps he’ll just continue this way: the former prodigy as road-show journeyman, making the star tours with whoever’ll have him, and occasionally tossing out an album. On the other hand, maybe G.E. and the Combo are providing some sort of impetus. Dylan was in a bad state–that’s why every show last year began with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: he was subterranean still, and homesick yet again. Now he’s recovering, and there’s a chance his new album–supposedly due for release in late August–will be worthwhile. It was produced by Daniel Lanois, the clear-thinking Eno protege who handled U2’s The Joshua Tree, Peter Gabriel’s So, and that new Neville Brothers record. Someone I know has heard three cuts and says they are great. Dylan is alive: he’s a monster and a star, and not out of commission yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.