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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Hey, let's change the subject from politics to something else, like music, or culture, or concerts, or social history, or all of the above.

Bob Dylan was on the St. Bonaventure University campus here last week, and his longer-than-usual concert was terrific, despite some of the wishy-washy reviews I've read.

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I attended, along with several other aging hippies on the faculty, and I urged my students to attend -- if only to observe one of the most important cultural icons of the past half-century, a man who helped stop a war with his music. Many students took my advice, but some of them seemed to think I was talking about poet Dylan Thomas, or some obscure rapper. Quite a few of them knew Dylan and his music, though, if only from hearing their fathers play it constantly. Some left as new fans.

The students from other countries -- Canada, France, Turkey, Poland -- appeared to know much more about Bob Dylan than many Americans. (I get the impression foreign students are much more culturally aware these days than American youths. I'm not sure why -- probably the reliable idiocy of American television.)

Not a few of the foreign students knew his real name and hometown -- Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minn. (which bills itself "The Toothpick Capital of the World"). None of them -- foreign or domestic -- seemed to care that Bob Dylan has never been able to sing very well in the classical sense. They grasp the real importance -- his lyrics, their intelligence and message, and his honest no-nonsense delivery.

As a perceptive local columnist, Tom Donahue of the Olean Times-Herald, wrote, Dylan drove "the musical bus that carried a new generation back to rock's roots -- folk music, where songs conveyed the hopes and fears and dreams of romantics." (Donahue heard one student waiting in line for tickets exclaim to a friend, "He's as old as my father." The friend shot back, "Yeah, but your father sings better.")

Dylan played for well over two hours (he doesn't always do that), did three encores, and seemed happy enough with the crowd to tell one of his patented corny jokes about his sidemen. The drummer, he said, was from Louisiana, where they have so many snakes that when it rains, folks put them on their cars and use them as "windshield vipers."

The punch line, you'll note, depends on pronunciation -- which in Dylan's unique verbal world is nasal and slurred and accented on the wrong syllable. About one percent of the crowd got it, but that's part of the fun. Several students -- lip readers and future CIA linguists, no doubt -- puzzled it out after the concert and clued me in.

Dylan's musicians were very key to his success on this night. Most members of Dylan's band (simply titled "...and His Band") have been with him for years -- bass-player Tony Garnier since 1989. The guy who joined the group just last June, lead guitarist Stu Kimball, carried the evening.

Kimball is a veteran Boston rocker who has become one of the music industry's best session men, and his playing here -- translating Dylan's sort of country-folk-rock style into long, pure, soaring rock 'n' roll riffs, set the students on the Reilly Center floor on fire. Many went into spontaneous spasmodic dancing by themselves. Others violated fire rules by torching up cigarette lighters and holding them on high in the time-honored tradition of rock appreciation.

Others lit up their cell phone screens and turned them toward the stage -- which seemed to amuse Dylan. Others merely lit up. The distinct aroma of ganja wafted into the upper seats, and the smoke danced through the floodlights until event staff personnel started scurrying through the crowd in an apparently futile effort to find the culprits.

Dylan did not handle a guitar all evening long. He bent over an electronic keyboard throughout, punching out melody with one hand and brandishing his trademark harmonica with the other. (Some speculated he was hunched over the keyboard to crib some of his new song lyrics from possible notes on the top. I couldn't get close enough to verify that.) Whenever Dylan strayed off key -- a predictable feature even in his 1960s and 1970s concerts -- the band would goose the volume and pace to bring it back, usually with minutes-long extemporizing that featured Kimball's brilliant and daring spontaneity.

I recognized only two or three classics, including the 30-year-old "Forever Young" and the even older "All Along the Watchtower."

One quibble: I coughed up $15 for a slick, glossy program that had little in it. I know, I know -- this is standard at almost every rock or pop or country concert ever produced, and it's supposed to be only a souvenir, but it still rankles me a bit. I was hoping to learn at least the names of the band members, but had to scrounge for those by listening to Dylan's murky introduction and reconstructing them later. The program photos were interesting -- from all periods of Dylan's professional life, including some with Mick Jagger.

It also contained reproductions of some nifty photos of show posters from Dylan's past -- including appearances with Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and from a French Canadian concert, "La Fantastique Ani DiFranco."

But almost 100 percent of the written words in this "Limited Edition" program were devoted to the transcript of a long, windy, pointless 1992 interview with Dylan about "Hearts of Fire," a clunker movie he was involved with that even Dylan fans ignored in droves. Who cares? (Even Dylan seemed to agree, in the interview terming the film "some kind of death wish for somebody.") The program didn't even mention his new and much-discussed autobiography, "Chronicles -- Volume One." Who's marketing his current tour, the same people who did New Coke?

A pleasing and edifying thing happened to me before the concert began. Two guys sitting in front of me kept turning around and looking at me like they knew me. I had the same feeling. Finally, we exchanged identities.

One was Billy Evans, a humorous, friendly bartender who often served me drinks and fine conversation some 30 years ago at the former Speakeasy tavern and restaurant in Niagara Falls, a great saloon I still miss from my youth and one that was the cultural, social and political epicenter of the community when it was still a community. The other was insurance broker Randy Ubriaco, a frequent patron and knowledgeable gent.

Running into old friends and acquaintances -- and fans of this column -- is one of the few pleasures of geezerdom, and when I identified myself in preconcert chatter, both men turned around and shouted, "Hanchette? The Niagara Falls Reporter columnist!" Then they began that exaggerated kowtowing, hands-over-head wave and bow from the "Saturday Night Live" "Party on, Garth" skit with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey.

"We are not worthy, we are not worthy," Randy and Billy chanted loudly as they bowed to me. I was more bemused than anything, and several students and faculty colleagues noticed the hubbub. I told them later I frequently get that reaction to things I write. (I don't, but they seemed to buy it.)

So, a bit of enjoyable music and cultural history during an evening that only cost $38.50 (plus the sawbuck-and-a-half for the lame program). I'd do it again anytime, even though my eclectic tastes these days favor a popular up-tempo Irish group called Flogging Molly. This never ceases to amaze students who also love that band -- as if I'm supposed to listen to Lawrence Welk for the rest of my life. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, you understand.)

The reasons I love Flogging Molly -- and especially their recent CD, "Within a Mile of Home" -- are their driving, sweep-you-along Irish rock tempo and their surprisingly poetic, imaginative, sad, angry and meaningful lyrics (most of them written by banjo- and guitar-player Dave King). Most of his words reflect beautifully the pain and remembrance and violence intertwined with Irish history. I can almost hear the reverberating DNA in me from my deceased Grandpa Dan Walsh, a professional Irish fiddler himself back in the day.

In a song called "The Seven Deadly Sins," King gets off some almost mystical allusions: "Anger kills the human soul/ With bitter tales of lust,/ While Pavlov's Dogs keep chewin'/ On the legs they never trust."

In "The Wanderlust," a questioning of a friend not seen for 13 years, King asks "Do you still walk the streets at night?/ With the wanderlust you fight/ Back to the corner where we went our separate ways ... Well, we walked upon the railroad/ 'Cause the train no longer ran/ Where we caught a glimpse of all we missed/ From the stars that filled our eyes."

In another King song, Irish bete noire Oliver Cromwell takes a beating. Somehow, King's words are haunting to me. Maybe it really is the DNA.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 16 2004