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Dylan and Haggard lay down three hours of gravel and silk

Published May 11, 2006

TAMPA - Time and music sure make for strange bedfellows. After all, when country giant Merle Haggard derided pot-smoking hippies in his 1969 classic Okie From Muskogee, the long-haired flag-burners he bashed were singing the songs of Bob Dylan as their own personal hymns.

Four decades later, however, those hard-scrabble icons paired up for an inspired, and pleasantly ramshackle, double bill at the USF Sun Dome Wednesday in front of 3,127 fans.

Over the course of their epic lives, Dylan, 64, and Haggard, 69, have been famously fickle when choosing foes. They've lashed left; they've raged right; they've even hurled some chin music straight down the middle. By aiming at everyone, they've been adored by just as many, rusty-sword wielding musicians who tell it like it is - or at least how it should be.

Haggard, the famously fiery ex-con who opened the three-hour show, is touring behind 2005 album Chicago Wind, on which the country music legend pleads, "Let's get out of Iraq and back on track." But his Tampa show was curiously free of politics.

Haggard opened with old fave Big City, and instantly proved that his voice is an ageless instrument, still smooth and rich, like a stiff shot of high-class whiskey. Workin' Man Blues was a hard, shuffling salve for the fist-pumping 9-to-5ers. And for his rowdy finale, Haggard dedicated I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink to "all the drunks in the house."

A couple of weeks ago, Dylan played a historic show at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The famously enigmatic folk-rock poet is known for casting a chilly shadow, but he displayed a rare warmth toward the people of the Big Easy. For anyone who says Dylan is no longer relevant, the Crescent City would differ.

His band was looser in New Orleans, but his set list Wednesday was one that would make a Dylanologist drool, a rolling collection of songs that dealt specifically with bad love and bad leaders. Dressed like a cross between a morgue attendant and a cowboy - in other words, picture Vincent Price in High Noon - Dylan opened with Maggie's Farm, his froggy growl snarling at the idea of working for fools.

It's been a few years since Dylan mysteriously ditched the guitar and took to playing the keyboards; but hey, as a bittersweet bonus with him behind the ivories, at least we get to see Bo do his cool shuffle dance, like a slo-mo version of the Twist.

If the fast songs sometimes lacked nuance, his love songs were thoughtful and downright chilling. Lay, Lady, Lay was woozy with last-call pedal-steel. Love Sick, the song he infamously performed on a Victoria's Secret commercial, was deliciously creepy. And a surprise rendition of Girl From the North Country was remarkably genteel.

The best two cuts of the night, however, were when Dylan aimed his poison pen at the state of the union. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, presumably directed at the two most powerful men in the country, was a biting jam built on an ominous rumble of bass and rums. And for Ballad of a Thin Man, Dylan taunted apathetic citizens to pull their heads from the sand and take a look around. Every time he bit off the end of Mr. Jones, Bob looked like he was ready to throw down.

You don't need Bob Dylan to know which way the wind blows. But it sure is nice having him around to talk about the weather.


Bob Dylan, with Merle Haggard opening, Wednesday night, USF Sun Dome, Tampa.

[Last modified May 11, 2006, 06:57:26]

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