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Tangled up in Dylan

You don't have to be a pop culture maven to notice that musical tributes are hot. And with "Rock & Roll Decades," a traveling paean to the '50s, '60s and '70s, booked into Medford's Craterian on Sunday, and road show tributes to the Beatles ("Rain") and Simon and Garfunkel ("Feelin' Groovy") not far behind, Craterian Performances Company is aiming squarely at aging boomers.

Meanwhile, a homegrown tribute to Bob Dylan that opened Thursday night at the Collier Center will knock your classic rock socks off. Conceived by Doug Warner, Next Stage Repertory Company's artistic director, "Like a Rolling Stone" brings together an impressive array of local musicians headed by extraordinary guitarist Jeff Pevar of the funk band LOVEBITE.

The remarkable thing is that a group of players assembled so quickly — I don't know how much rehearsal there was, but this is essentially a pickup band — could put together a show of such consistently high musical quality. From the time Warner strolled onto the stage and began a solo, acoustic version of "The Times They Are A-Changin," the band put the pedal to the metal on America's most iconic songbook.

Guitarist Bret Levick led a lovely "Mr. Tamborine Man" that segued into a jam by Pevar and quickly involved the band. The group played a funky version of "Tangled Up in Blue" with meaty solos by Pevar and keyboardist Don Harriss, and a loping beat laid down by the rock-ribbed rhythm duo of bassist Jeff Addicott and drummer Matthew Kriemelman. Singer Jade Chavis Watt, who is usually more at home with gospel groups and pre-rock standards, sang a deeply felt "Blowin' In the Wind" and tore up the stage on "You Gotta Serve Somebody."

"Who knew I liked Bob Dylan?" she said in mock amazement.

Bob Dylan may be the most important popular American musician ever. Who else is even in the running? Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Robert Johnson, Elvis? It's a short list. To hear the songs, one after the other, is to understand once again.

He melded the country blues of African-Americans and the folk traditions of Southern whites with lyrics that sounded like surreal poems (and often were). He helped create the folk revival of the 1950s, then broke it out of New York City. He was at the hot center of the birth of what we now call classic rock. He scolded the Beatles into writing intelligent lyrics. He reinvented himself through the decades and never lost relevance.

With the originals of classic songs engraved in the hardwiring of our brains, tributes often sound a tad off. With Dylan, it's different. He not only wrote songs that will live forever, he wrote an awful lot of tunes that sound like they were written for everybody in the world to play.

And by the time the band roared into "It Takes a Lot of Laugh It Takes a Train to Cry," with Pevar blowing the lights out on slide guitar, it was clear that these are all new arrangements, original interpretations, not mere Dylan imitations. "Just Like a Woman" was touching and filled with vulnerability. Inger Jorgensen kicked off an "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" that quickly involved everybody in its moodiness. There was an epic "Tombstone Blues."

Another good example: a jazzy "All Along the Watchtower" with Pevar playing electric bass behind Jorgensen's torchy vocal.

And yes, there were even sing-along moments ("... serve somebody ... serve sombody ... ").

Another amazing thing about the show is that there's not a dud in it. Well, OK, "Lay Lady Lay" never quite caught fire, but that was a rarity.

"Knocking On Heaven's Door" began as a lovely, elegiac piece that quickly became a roof-raiser with towering solos by Pevar and Harriss. "Serve Somebody" had a very credible mouthharp solo by Warner, and Watt tearing it up on vocals.

It was inevitable that a charismatic young man who wrote and sang "The Times They Are A-changin' " in 1964 would be dubbed the spokesman for a generation — a label Dylan despised. But there's change, and hope, some of it now bitterly ironic, in these songs.

If there's any bone to pick with this show, it's that all the songs are oldies. The most recent If memory serves, is "You Gotta Serve Somebody," from 1979. It's not as if Bob hasn't done anything worthwhile in the last 35 years. After a subpar writing decade in the 1980s, he came roaring back with 1997's "Time Out of Mind," a masterpiece followed quickly by more top-notch stuff.

But that didn't seem to matter as deadline called a reviewer away, and the band, led by Levick's uncharacteristically Dylan-esque vocal, was bringing down the house with an incendiary "Like a Rolling Stone."

The show repeats at 7:30 tonight and 2 p.m. Saturday at the Collier Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Medford. Tickets cost $18 and can be purchased at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., online at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

 Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Note: Jeff Pevar's band and Jade Chavis Watt's middle name have been corrected from previous version.

Clockwise from front: Rogue Valley musicians Don Harriss, Inger Jorgensen, Jeff Pevar, Jeff Addicott, Doug Warner, Matt Kriemelman, Jade Watt and Bret Levick make up the band for Next Stage Repertory's 'Blowin' in the Wind.' Photo courtesy of Tim Tidball