Forever Young 

With splendid new albums, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson greet mortality with a grin and a chuckle -- and wouldn't have it any other way.

Bob Dylan wrote and sang those words on "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" from the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. He was 24 years old. But unlike similarly youthful rock-and-roll pronouncements (Pete Townshend's "Hope I die before I get old," for instance), Dylan has stuck to it, embodying the sentiment throughout his career.

Dylan may well be our most prominent living musician, but he's never acted like it, following his own restless muse for nearly 40 years now. What is heroic about Dylan isn't merely his refusal to rest on his laurels but his refusal to even acknowledge those laurels to begin with. His career, like the American music he is so synonymous with, has been a constant act of rebirth.

But the lyric could also be a credo for Willie Nelson, eight years Dylan's elder and his only real competition for Greatest Living Repository of American Song. Dylan and Nelson have had similarly prolific resurgences over the last decade. Dylan recaptured his muse with a couple of compelling cover albums, 1992's Good As I Been To You and 1993's better World Gone Wrong, before setting off on his still-going-strong Neverending Tour, capping off his return to glory with 1997's universally hailed Time Out of Mind. Nelson rebounded from well-chronicled tax problems with 1993's Across the Borderline and has issued an astounding 18 albums since, tackling a variety of genres on a variety of labels seemingly with no concern for the music's commercial prospects.

Where most rock and country artists of their generation constantly recycle the past with greatest-hits tours or stick to tepid, conservative attempts to recapture their past glories ("Every record that I'm making/Is like a record that I've made/JUST NOT AS GOOD," as Randy Newman sang on his great ode to geezer-rock, "I'm Dead [But I Don't Know It]"), these grand pop-music senior citizens have been busy being born.

As it happens, Dylan and Nelson have recently released new albums that are not only remarkable but remarkably similar. Dylan's "Love And Theft" is an album of originals that plays like a loose tribute to pre-rock American pop, hinting that it's far from coincidence that Dylan's title comes from writer Eric Lott's highly regarded history of the minstrel tradition. Nelson's Rainbow Connection, on the other hand, is almost all covers, a collection of kiddie music and novelty songs. These records are casual almost to a fault, so lazy and breezy that some will undoubtedly mistake this relaxation for slightness. In addition to being imbued with a deep reverence for American song traditions, both records are just as profound for how deeply funny they are, daring to be frivolous. Nelson opens his record with the title song, lifted, of course, from The Muppet Movie. Dylan starts with a bit of carnival blues called "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum."

The records also share the circumstances of their production. There was no indication that a new Dylan album was coming until a few months ago. Dylan seems to have recorded the album with his road band (along with guest keyboardist Augie Meyers) between regular gigs. Rainbow Connection was recorded last Christmas at Nelson's home studio with his road band and daughters -- family all. Both men have made music on a nightly basis for years with the same bands, and this intimacy and comfort carry over to these albums like little else they've recorded.

Both records are also subtly autumnal -- with aging as a subtext tackled with wit and wisdom. What is perhaps most brave and beautiful about "Love And Theft" and Rainbow Connection is the way Dylan and Nelson meet mortality with a grin and a chuckle. Dylan makes this plain on one of the album's most invigorating songs, the raucous rockabilly raveup "Summer Days." "Summer days and summer nights are gone," Dylan howls, then he answers his own plaint with a shout: "I know a place where there's still something going on."

Though it's been greeted with some great early press (a rare five-star review in Rolling Stone and a just-as-rare "A+" from The Village Voice's Robert Christgau), I doubt "Love And Theft" will match the accolades or album sales of Time Out of Mind -- but it's a better record.

With its foreboding, atmospheric production from Daniel Lanois and its serious, sometimes morbid tone, Time Out of Mind announced its profundity, and most listeners took it at its word. Time Out of Mind is a great record, but it's also the kind of great record for putting on the shelf and admiring. "Love And Theft" is a great record for listening to and singing along with. It doesn't come with the comfortable sonic and conceptual reassurances of seriousness and class that made Time such a prestige item and thus -- to its credit, frankly -- won't be winning any Grammys.

But it reminds us, like nothing has in years, that Dylan's greatness always lay more in his lyrical wit, expressively unprofessional vocals, and natural musicality than in the weighty pronouncements that got him labeled the Voice of a Generation. It reminds us that, along with Newman and Chuck Berry, he's one of the funniest rock-and-rollers ever.

In spirit, "Love And Theft" is Blonde on Blonde meets The Basement Tapes -- hilariously caustic one-liners meet lazy, lovely, mysterious Americana. Where Time Out of Mind was as much an idea as an album, "Love And Theft" rewards obsessive listening with the warm, open tone of the music, the freeness, indeed the wildness, of the vocals, and the consistent good humor of the lyrics. On the bass-driven "Lonesome Day Blues," Dylan's over-the-top growl carries audible joy, leering to a lover "You're gonna need my help, sweetheart/You can't make love all by yourself!" On the moon-June-spoon "Bye and Bye," Dylan gets borscht-belt, cracking, "I'm sitting on my watch/So I can be on time." And that's before he tells a knock- knock joke and issues a "booty call." Some moments, like the regretful ballad "Mississippi" and the album-closing "Sugar Baby," are more reflective, but these moments wouldn't be as poignant without the rest of the album's freewheelin' spirit.

Rainbow Connection is even more poignantly, pointedly juvenile. Nelson brings out the whole crew for a family sing-along (and whistle-along) of "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover." The traditional dog song "Ol' Blue" reprises a tune Nelson first remembers hearing when his grandmother sang it to him at the age of 4. Nelson's daughter Amy joins him for the children's song "Playmate." Nelson dives into "I'm My Own Grandpa," a novelty song for all ages, with great gusto. His best album since 1996's spare, gorgeous Spirit, Rainbow Connection is one of the funniest, warmest family reunions you'll ever hear. It slides off the tracks at the end with predictable weirdness -- two straight covers of Mickey Newbury curiosities "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" and "The Thirty-Third of August." But before it does so, Nelson offers the album's only original, a new standard. A better, truer sequel to his "On the Road Again," the great "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" is a credo that sums up this latest chapter in the careers of both of these bus-riding troubadours:

"We play our songs and play our old guitars/And it don't really matter where we are.

We wake up in a new world every day/

And we wouldn't have it any other way."

local beat

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

Coming off the successful return of its trademark Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, the Center for Southern Folklore is attempting to beef up its schedule with a new weekly dinner theater production, Beale Street Saturday Night.

Essentially a one-woman show featuring noted local singer Joyce Cobb (who devised the concept for the show, which is written and directed by E. Frank Bluestein and produced by center director Judy Peiser) and a five- piece backing band, the show was originally a two-hour program produced a couple of years ago that was performed for school groups and toured. It has been scaled down to a little over an hour, with a Southern buffet dinner preceding the performance. Tickets for the dinner and show are $39.95.

The show is an overview of the history of Memphis music, with narration by Cobb interspersed with musical performances. The center gave its second public performance of Beale Street Saturday Night last week. Cobb and crew were a little tentative in the early moments but soon found their footing.

After a brief introduction, the show begins its narrative with slave songs and spirituals, featuring a medley that includes "Down By the Riverside." The show then proceeds through the early history of Beale Street (juxtaposing Memphis icons W.C. Handy and Boss Crump with a reading of Handy's "Mr. Crump's Blues"), the first generation of female blues singers that have obviously influenced Cobb, and the era of cotton and Jim Crow.

Cobb sounded great during the section on female blues singers. Her section on Bessie Smith, with saxophone player Sonny Williams as sidekick, was a particular highlight. But Cobb sounded a little out of her element on the field-hand songs of cotton and Crow, performing the standard "Cotton Fields." This section, however, featured the best of the night's many instrumental showcases with drummer Terry Saffold's crowd-pleasing brush stick and tin washpan solo (the other members of this fine band are J.T. Page on piano, Charles Johnson on bass, and Ken Dinkins on guitar).

Cobb highlights the postwar Beale era with strong performances of the Elvis-identified "Good Rockin' Tonight," played and sung the way original artist Wynonnie Harris might have played it on Beale Street, and B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone."

A long section on Elvis is awkward but fun, with Cobb aping the King's hip twist, lip twitch, and the scarf-throwing that he would add during the Vegas years. After a tribute to Rufus Thomas via an audience-participation version of "Funky Chicken," Cobb finds her peak in a tribute to three women whom she calls the "divas of Beale Street," offering stylistically convincing and forceful takes on Mavis Staples ("Respect Yourself"), Ann Peebles ("I Can't Stand the Rain"), and Carla Thomas ("Gee Whiz").

An inevitable finale of "Walking in Memphis" is anticlimactic but an obvious and probably useful way of wrapping up the show for the tourists who seem to be the core audience.

The $39.95 admission price may be too steep for a lot of people, but the show does deliver.

Beale Street Saturday Night will take the next two weeks off but will return on Thursday, October 4th, and is scheduled to run every Thursday night thereafter, with dinner staring at 7 p.m. and the show at 8 p.m.

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