It was as though Dylan wanted to keep the emphasis on his songs, which are survivors as well. Over most of the last two decades, the peerless songwriter has alternately celebrated and battered the gems of his back catalog, transforming pure and indelible melodies into exercises in abstract improvisation or intentionally craggy, indecipherable variations.
But sometime in the last five years, Dylan and his excellent touring band discovered ways to renew the warhorses, to make the songs people expect him to sing feel vibrant and alive. His set was an inventory of these: ``Silvio'' was recast as the kind of brisk blue moan you might hear in a Southern roadhouse, while ``Tangled Up in Blue,'' which featured Bucky Baxter on mandolin, grew from a simple declaration into an explosion of rhythmic strumming far more intense than the peak moments engineered by most jam bands.
Improvisation is central to Dylan's rebirth. Once content to shout the blues with wild-eyed abandon, he now conveys varying shades of hurt through small, tossed-off phrases that dispense pain in perfectly measured doses. And he's found ways to make limitations of range and his trademark coarse vocal texture work for him: his treatment of ``Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat'' found him leaning on his high register to create a gnawing, scraping, all-cried-out sound that was incredibly poignant.
This vocal testimony was backed up by a crisp, precision-minded three-guitar attack. Baxter usually played lap steel; using short staccato chords and weepy, slurred single notes, he stitched together an easygoing, impeccable accompaniment that gave Dylan and guitarist Larry Campbell plenty of space. The two used it well: Trading leads and locking their lines together, they gave ``Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again'' a good going-over, and used long, arching sustained notes to enhance the feeling of redemption at the core of ``Shelter From the Storm.''
Though Dylan has an album of new material, Time Out of Mind, scheduled for release in late September, Wednesday's set was composed mostly of classics, with a few rarities - like a gorgeous version of ``Tears of Rage'' - thrown in for good measure. But even such staples as ``Absolutely Sweet Marie,'' which opened the show, and ``Like a Rolling Stone,'' which opened the encore set, attained a rare, transfixing fervor strong enough to make you forget the gazillion times Dylan has sung those phrases before.
Country traditionalists BR5-49 opened the show with a set of impeccably played, if rudimentary, shuffles and two-steps. Then came Ani DiFranco, the singer-songwriter who has cultivated a devoted following with forthright, sometimes blunt, observations on everything from the tug-of-war of relationships to the media's notion of a feminine ideal.
Strumming basic rhythm-guitar patterns with a ferocious zeal, and using her throaty voice like a magnet, DiFranco invested each song with obvious personal commitment. When she sang a new song about a man who used his dark sunglasses like a shield, it was clear she'd been on the outside of such a gaze; when she sang about being a single woman on the road, she delivered the phrase ``Smile pretty, watch your back'' with the hissing bitterness of experience.
And though her lyrics are the point of entry for many, DiFranco didn't just roll through wordy rallying cries like ``Dialate,'' or the rapid-fire juxtapositions of images that dot many of her verses. She really worked to put the meanings across, to illustrate the themes with appropriate vocal embellishments: On the lullaby-like ``Take Me Home,'' she incorporated a version of the nursery rhyme ``Rock-a-Bye Baby'' that grew into an engrossing, scat-style ad-lib notable for its poised, jazzish sense of adventure.