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LEGEND ALERT

What can I say about Bob Dylan that hasn't already been said more eloquently by someone else? That he's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma? That his musical career has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs? That he's America's greatest living songwriter? You already know all of that.

So, for those casual fans considering attending his show at AVA at Casino del Sol this week, the one thing I can offer is a little insight on what to expect.

I've seen a lot of Dylan shows over the years, starting in 1986 on the True Confessions Tour, when he was backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And believe me, I've seen the good, the bad, the sublime and the downright ugly—sometimes within the same show.

Those early shows I saw were hit-or-miss at best, but I was green enough to be thrilled to be breathing the same rarified air. Dylan sometimes seemed like he would have rather been somewhere else—anywhere else—and not onstage playing chestnuts and obscurities for a crowd that largely still thought of him as a peacenik folksinger. He had, of course, dropped that mask decades earlier in favor of an ever-changing array of new masks.

In concert, Dylan doesn't exactly like to play it safe. He challenges his band by calling out last-minute changes to not only the set list (if there even is one), but to the arrangements of individual songs. At those early shows, it wasn't unusual for him to change the instrumentation and phrasing of a song to the extent that classic songs became unrecognizable until the chorus hit. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't.

It was a shock when in 1994, I attended a show in my hometown of Springfield, Ill., at the smallest venue in which I'd ever seen him perform. I was lucky enough to score front-row tickets, and it was a thrill to be so close, to be able to see every minor detail of his expression. But the best part about it was this: It was the Bob Dylan show that I'd always wanted to see, one I didn't realize he was still capable of performing. The set list was fantastic, and he seemed utterly rejuvenated, thrilled to be performing again.

He had a new drummer that night, a wild-haired monster who pounded the shit out of the drums, and I chalked up the change in Dylan's attitude to the engine driving from the drummer's throne. That drummer was Tucson's own Winston Watson, who toured with Dylan from 1992 to 1996.

That remains the best Bob Dylan show I've ever seen.

I later read an article in Time magazine in which Dylan claimed that the change in his attitude came during a show in Italy. I'm going on memory here, but the gist was this: In the middle of the show, Dylan had an epiphany that he had been phoning in his performances for years, and he decided that he was going to start caring again. Simple as that.

Who knows whether this is true (Dylan is not the most reliable narrator), or whether it was Watson who re-energized Dylan, but those shows when Winston was drumming represent the best string of Dylan shows I've seen in my 25 years of them.

In recent years, the shows have gotten spottier again. By the time he performed at AVA in October 2002, he had abandoned the guitar in favor of keyboards, with the exception of the traditional acoustic section of the show. The set list was erratic: He played covers of the Stones' "Brown Sugar," "Old Man" by Neil Young, and a pair of songs by Warren Zevon, who was then gravely ill. However, the show was riveting for its uniqueness, and it was the last great show Dylan performed in Tucson.

By contrast, his 2006 show at the Tucson Convention Center Arena was mediocre, at best. He didn't pick up a guitar all night, and Dylan and the band never quite caught the groove they were looking for.

That's a Bob Dylan show for you. Novices should know what to expect, which is to say: Expect the unexpected. You buy your ticket; you take the ride. And with Dylan piloting, you never know where the hell you'll end up.

Bob Dylan performs at 8 p.m., Tuesday, July 19, at AVA at Casino del Sol, 5655 W. Valencia Road. Tickets for the all-ages show are $35 to $95, and are available at avaconcerts.com or by calling (877) 840-0457.


SEMI-LEGEND ALERT

Since we're on the topic of great songwriters who don't make it to Tucson very often, Ben Folds returns to town this week for the first time in a decade.

To the best of my recollection, he's only performed in Tucson twice before—a 1997 show at the Pima County Fair fronting his now-long-disbanded Ben Folds Five (and in typical Folds fashion, the band was a trio), and a sold-out July 2001 show at The Rock for which Frank Black opened.

Since then, the wry pop songwriter has become something of a renaissance man. At that Rock show, he was promoting Rockin' the Suburbs (2001, Sony), his first solo album following the breakup of the Five; he's released several since, but none have quite resonated with the public on the same level as his work with Ben Folds Five (whose biggest hit, it's worth noting, was about an abortion). Which is too bad, because some of them have been great. (Oddly enough, he has also appeared as a judge on the NBC singing-competition show The Sing-Off, alongside one of the Pussycat Dolls.)

He's also become something of a professional collaborator. He produced, arranged, performed on and wrote songs for William Shatner's excellent 2004 album Has Been (Shout! Factory); he formed a band with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee called, appropriately, The Bens; he produced and performed on the first solo album by the Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer; and last year, he released Lonely Avenue (Nonesuch), a collaboration with British author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy).

So there's no telling what Folds' set list will include when he returns to Tucson this week. But the guy is something of a pop genius, a consummate performer and up to his eyeballs in charisma, so whatever it is he plays, if you're a fan, you won't want to miss it.

Ben Folds performs at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., on Saturday, July 16. Kenton Chen opens the all ages show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40.50 in advance, or $41 on the day of the show. For tickets or more info, head to rialtotheatre.com, or call 740-1000.


ON THE BANDWAGON

Due to my lengthy babblings on Dylan and Folds (wind me up and watch me go!), I've run out of room to tell you about all the other worthwhile shows this week. So, be sure to check out our listings section, and in the meantime, here are some of the more notable ones:

Reverend Horton Heat and the Swingin' Utters at the Rialto Theatre on Sunday, July 17; Star and Micey and the Dusty Buskers at Plush on Tuesday, July 19; The Coathangers and Otherly Love at Club Congress on Tuesday, July 19; Chris Smither at Suite 147 in Plaza Palomino on Friday, July 15; Kottonmouth Kings at The Rock on Friday, July 15; Ludo, Sparks the Rescue, Tommy and the High Pilots and Stamps at Club Congress next Thursday, July 21; St. Maybe at the Red Room at Grill on Monday, July 18; Summer Splash with Delta Nove, The Tryst and 8 Minutes to Burn at The Hut on Saturday, July 16; Optimist Club with Lexicon Don and DJ Matt McCoy at Club Congress next Thursday, July 21; Garrett Botkins, Will Daniels, Boogie Nazis and Doctor Dinosaur at Dry River Collective next Thursday, July 21; Ultramaroon, The Reaction and DJWWJD at the Red Room at Grill on Tuesday, July 19; Ryanhood at Suite 147 in Plaza Palomino on Saturday, July 16; the Railbirdz and Zo Carroll and the Soulbreakers at Boondocks Lounge on Saturday, July 16; Acorn Bcorn, Quiet Please and Popular Clock at the Red Room at Grill on Wednesday, July 20.

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