Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp


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Reporting from Lake Elsinore, Calif. — The great thing about minor league baseball is the intimate view it gives those who relish the game itself more than the race to the World Series or the high-priced superstars.

Bob Dylan offers much the same intimacy for music fans with another summer tour of minor league ballparks, accompanied this time byWillie Nelson, John Mellencamp and the Wiyos.

Their only Southern California stop was Wednesday night at Diamond Park, the home of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the San Diego Padres' Class-A farm team. It was a refreshingly pure, no-frills look at three veterans who are still in top form, plus one terrific rookie act.

Dylan's 95-minute headlining performance introduced a couple of the songs from his recent “Together Through Life" album into a set much like what he's been delivering with aplomb over the last decade, thanks to a sharp band behind him.

He even picked up a guitar, something he's rarely done of late. He usually stations himself at the keyboard because, according to a recent Rolling Stone interview, he can't find anyone to play keyboards exactly the way he wants them played.

After casually strolling on stage outfitted in a black suit with yellow piping, a matching yellow shirt, bolo tie and modified white gaucho hat, he got things started with “Ballad of a Thin Man." The rock bard then strapped on an electric guitar for another '60s classic, “The Times They Are A-Changin';" it was the only time he played the instrument all night.

Between sharply delivered lyric phrases, he ripped off a solo on a night markedly low on such instrumental excursions. For the most part, Dylan's harmonica was the most frequently spotlighted instrument until guitarist Lucas Nelson -- Willie's son and a recent addition to his dad's Family band -- came out at the end for “Like a Rolling Stone," the new “Jolene" and “All Along the Watchtower."

Fans often grumble that Dylan, 68, frequently interprets his signature songs so radically that they are unrecognizable. So it was a bit surprising that the first two numbers held as close to the original arrangements as they did.

The reward for those who prize spontaneous musical creation over rote repetition is the new perspectives Dylan provided with shifted vocal or instrumental emphasis on “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," a gloriously hard-swinging rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited" and the amped-up reggae groove given to “Love Sick" from 1997's “Time Out of Mind."

From the new album he included “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," a characteristically layered number that starts off like a love song -- “I love you pretty baby/You're the only one I've ever known" -- then turns existential with a mysterious tagline at the end of each verse.

His words were surrounded by a hypnotically rolling New Orleans rhythm--not the kind of thing likely to find its way to the top of the charts today, but manna from heaven for those who know the riches of American regional music.

Willie Nelson's hourlong set is a bit like the Grand Canyon: Its basic features have been in place for what seems like eons, but the details get shaped and refined subtly as time rolls on.

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