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WHO: Bob Dylan

WHEN: Thursday

WHERE: Reilly Center, St. Bonaventure University

He's been called, justly, the greatest songwriter in rock history, but Bob Dylan is at heart a mad alchemist.

Like a crazed chemist working the night shift in an otherwise abandoned lab, Dylan reduces his songs to their molten base, then bangs them into new shapes on the anvil of his imagination.

Often, seasoned classics emerge from the process in new, unrecognizable forms -- a folk ballad might now wear the clothes of Jimmy Reed blues, or a talking blues unveils itself as a country shuffle. For Dylan, anything is fair game.

Dylan led his stellar band through an inspired set, and not surprisingly, he altered a set's worth of well known tunes, more obscure nuggets and a handful of tracks culled from his most recent studio effort, 2001's brilliant "Love and Theft."

Dylan was, as they say, on; throughout the show, he stood hunched over an electric piano, singing, snarling, offering rapid-fire nearly-raps, or caressing the outer fringes of his melodic structures until they responded in kind.

In between achingly drawn-out vocal phrases, Dylan stabbed out chord clusters on his keyboard, often playing against the ample rhythms created by drummer George Recille and bassist Tony Garnier.

The occasionally annoying shortcomings in the hall's acoustic properties were more than made up for by an inspired set, which highlighted the playing of the ensemble's newest member, guitarist Stu Kimball.

At 63, Dylan finally appears to comfortable in his own skin on stage.

If audience members hadn't seen Dylan and company in a while, they might not have even recognized a few classics in their new, stiletto-thrusting guise. For example, "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," in its original arrangement a sort of talking blues, is now an edgy rocker, Dylan spraying the song's accusatory lyrics in clusters above the fluid interplay of his band, with guitarist and, from the appearance of things, band-leader Larry Campbell heading the charge.

All told, this was a fantastic Dylan show, from the sinister, sleazy shuffle of "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," to the crushing, power-chord frenzy of encore "All Along the Watchtower."

Along the way, Dylan and his band hit several high points, including a rather torrid "Highway 61 Revisited," a knotty, elusive but somehow compelling "Forever Young," a burning jump-swing run through "Summer Days" and a version of the awesome "High Water (for Charley Patton)," which arrived with pride and stomped about like the beast bound for Bethlehem in the William Butler Yeats poem.

With the recently-released first installment of his autobiography, "Chronicles," sitting proudly on the bestseller list, a book of collected lyrics moving briskly, and a hot band bolstered by new blood, Dylan's profile remains incredibly high. He is, it seems, about to scale yet another peak.


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