ROCK / Dylan's night that had it all

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IT ENDED with a moment of truth and grace, but until then it had been one of the strangest events in the history of rock and roll. The Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden on Friday had just about every mood imaginable, from the beery benevolence of a gold-watch presentation to a tension so extreme that at one point the night threatened to end in violence. In its sudden contrasts and variable quality, at least, it seemed a fitting summary of a long and eventful career.

Conceived by his record company to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his recording debut, the four-and-a-half-hour concert featured Dylan and a host of others performing his songs. Aimed at subscribers to US pay-per-view television, it was the latest stage in the process that began with Woodstock and reached its apogee with Live Aid: a package show for the new global village.

It wasn't easy to envisage Dylan as the centrepiece of such a grandiose project. But he has always been more gregarious than his image suggests, and lately has seemed to find relief in the company of other musicians. By the time the finale came round, there were certainly plenty of friends on stage to join him in a singalong on 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door'.

Who knows what had been going through Dylan's head a few minutes earlier as he stood strumming an acoustic guitar while the verses of 'My Back Pages', his youthful disavowal of guru-hood and political commitment, were sung with faithful accuracy by Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. Naturally, when he stepped forward to take a verse himself, he made it sound like a completely different song.

By the time he came on stage, the event was already three hours old. It had begun with Booker T Jones singing 'Gotta Serve Somebody' in front of two of his MGs, the guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn - who, with the overactive guitarist G E Smith and drummers Jim Keltner and Anton Fig, formed the rhythm section for most of the guests.

Some of the performances relied on history for their impact. Carolyn Hester supplying high harmonies to Nanci Griffith's version of 'Boots of Spanish Leather' made a moving sight: it was while playing harmonica on a session of Hester's in 1961 that Dylan was spotted by John Hammond, the peerless talent scout. And Hammond's son, the blues singer John Hammond Jr, was on hand to sing Blind Lemon Jefferson's 'See that My Grave is Kept Clean', from Dylan's first album.

There were also moments of pure wilfulness. The young American Sophie B Hawkins, who probably owed her place on the bill to the fact that she shares a record company with Dylan, turned 'I Want You' into a squabble between Rickie Lee Jones and Violet Elizabeth Bott. But the prize for high drama went to Sinead O'Connor, whose arrival met with a ferocious response from that part of the 20,000-strong audience which had not sympathised with her recent protest against the Pope on US television. There was real hatred in their jeers, and her answer was not to sing 'I Believe in You' with the rhythm section, as planned, but to stand alone, clenched and defiant, spitting the lyric of Bob Marley's 'War' over the hostile racket. Eventually she was led away in tears, the consoling arm of Kris Kristofferson around her shoulders. Serves her right, some said, but to others it evoked memories of Dylan himself being booed for a purely musical form of apostasy 25 years ago.

Neil Young came on to re

adjust the mood with noisy, spirited versions of 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' and 'All Along the Watchtower'. Together with Lou Reed's careful version of the difficult 'Foot of Pride', Young gave us the best of the night's straight-ahead rock music. John Mellencamp did tolerably well by 'Like a Rolling Stone' and 'Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat', as did Tom Petty with 'Licence to Kill', but George Harrison and Ron Wood were merely adequate, while Johnny Winter and George Thorogood really needn't have bothered. Oddly, Eric Clapton suffered from being too original: his rearrangements of 'Love Minus Zero' and 'Don't Think Twice' were unnecessary distortions of delicate songs.

Dylan's music has many roots, and some of his sources paid their respects. The sounds of gospel came from Stevie Wonder in a slowed-down 'Blowin' in the Wind' and the O'Jays with a thrilling 'Emotionally Yours'. Nashville was represented by Johnny Cash and June Carter, who turned 'It Ain't Me Babe' into a hoe-down; by Willie Nelson, not shown to best advantage on 'What Was It You Wanted'; by Kristofferson, who delivered 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' with unaffected charm; and by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and Roseanne Cash, who did a sweethearts-of-the-rodeo act on 'You Ain't Going Nowhere'.

Fitting no obvious category, but entirely successful in their own terms, were Richie Havens with 'Just Like a Woman', Chrissie Hynde with a poised 'I Shall Be Released', and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, a young Seattle rocker who sang an acoustic version of 'Masters of War' with touching respect and commitment. Unlike many of his elders, he didn't seem to be reading the lyric from a teleprompter.

Rumours of appearances by Bono and Springsteen were false, but the biggest holes were left by Joan Baez (who plays New York this week) and Robbie Robertson, whose absence undermined the version of 'When I Paint My Masterpiece' performed by his surviving colleagues from the Band.

But, as his record company used to say, nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, and the old boy, nowadays noted for the unevenness of his concert performances, came up with three winners. His choices were flawless. 'Song to Woody', from his first album, paid tribute to his origins and influences; 'It's Alright, Ma' tapped the pre-election mood; and 'Girl from the North Country', the final encore, had a tender beauty that was always at least as characteristic and important as his famous snarl. If you had tears to shed, this was the moment to let them go.