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From USA TODAY online 2/23/98- Updated 01:06 PM ET. Reprinted WITHOUT Permission.

Bob Dylan happiest on the road

NEW YORK -- It was just a moment, one from the road where Bob Dylan frequently finds himself these days. He was performing on a college campus before an audience that visibly defined the divide in his following. Watching from bleacher seats were the graying children of the 1960s who consider Dylan their poet laureate for his restless, searing songs.

On the dance floor were their children, dressed in tie-dyed shirts, twirling in place and lost in the groove. For them, Dylan and his band were like Phish, the Dave Matthews Band and the late, lamented Grateful Dead - musicians who can be counted on for inventive, ecstatic jams.

Trading his electric guitar for an acoustic, Bob saluted his young fans with a cover of the Dead's Friend of the Devil. The past year has been eventful for Dylan, who is up for four Grammy Awards. He's played for the pope, put on a tuxedo for a stuffy tribute at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and suffered through a painful, life-threatening heart infection. He also released an album, Time Out of Mind, that was a creative triumph, a ghostly collection of songs in which Dylan faced his own mortality and proved he can create compelling music out of it.

For the most part, though, he's at home on the road. He works up to 150 nights a year before an audience, rediscovering and remaking songs from his bottomless catalog.

Many in his musical generation have struggled with the idea of aging in what is perceived as a young person's game. Paul Simon turned to Broadway. Paul McCartney and Billy Joel have dabbled in classical music. Pete Townshend is a book editor.

While the Rolling Stones are among the few to defy gravity and remain popular, the main purpose of their extravagant stage show is nostalgia, and their songs seem to live and breathe in another age.

Dylan, instead, has taken a cue from another generation to keep his music alive. Emulating jazz and blues artists who perform and test their boundaries into advanced years, he has stayed on the road throughout the 1990s. His touring is so relentless that one trek was only half-jokingly called "The Never-Ending Tour."

He performs at clubs, mid-size concert halls and musty gymnasiums in cities big and small. Even last year, his health problems gave him only a brief break.

Dylan concerts, particularly in the late 1980s, were so legendarily uneven that a popular audience participation sport was trying to guess which song he was singing.

Since hitting his stride around 1994, he has remained fully engaged. His band - Bucky Baxter, Tony Garnier, Dave Kemper and Larry Campbell - is his best since The Band. The sturdy rock outfit, which takes on a country flavor with Baxter's pedal-steel guitar, can stretch and bend and keep up musically with whatever journey its leader takes.

Why he spends so much time on the road is one of the questions Dylan is most frequently asked and, to him, the most peculiar.

"I really don't have anyplace to put my feet up," he once said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Well, we want to play 'cause we want to play. Why tour? It's just that you get accustomed to it over the years. The people themselves will tell you when to stop touring."

A Dylan record is a mere blueprint. His songs take on different shapes and shades on the road, particularly as they age. Just Like a Woman and Don't Think Twice, It's Alright are now wistful, the 30 years since their writing nearly audible in his voice.

Tangled Up in Blue becomes a country stomp and, despite the acoustic instruments, a cue for seated audience members to rise and rush the stage.

Silvio, generally overlooked when he recorded it with the Grateful Dead in the 1980s, is remade into a roaring rocker. "I've seen better days but who," he sings, pausing for effect, "has not."

Trading fiery guitar licks with Campbell, Dylan nearly duckwalks across the stage. He's content to let these guitar duels spill on and on, and songs sometimes pull up in exhaustion rather than end.

Already the songs from Time Out of Mind have taken on a new life, shedding the muted arrangements of the album. Cold Irons Bound, in particular, reveals itself as a blues rocker with real muscle.

"I think it's the best record he's made," says one fan, singer Elvis Costello. "It sounds like he really meant to do it. For him to make a record that he was really determined to make and to have it come out the way he wanted, makes it his best record - at least until his next best record."

Dylan's brush with mortality at age 56 shocked his admirers from their lethargy, reminding them that this resource won't always be around.

He may make an appearance at the Grammys. If so, one hopes it will be better than the limp Kennedy Center honors, where Dylan sat making uncomfortable faces while listening to a flowery tribute from actor Gregory Peck.

He has better places to be this month, in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, and Bristol, Tenn., all cities where he has scheduled concerts.

Long may he run.

By The Associated Press