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Grand Pops

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon tour together

On one hand, you've got the wheezing, craggy troubadour mired in his own legend. On the other, a genre-raiding predator fresh off creating one of Broadway's worst flops.

But with enough hits between them to fill plenty of CDs and, more important, lots of historical gravitas, this show should be a dream. In fact, this Houston date is part of an extended schedule. Taking turns opening at each stop, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon each deliver a 75-minute show, with a duet segment sandwiched in between. Dylan has been receiving most of the positive press for a raucous, revival-style set, which combines both drastically recast familiar numbers and obscure bits. It seems he has been able to draw strength from the success of his material both new (1997's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind) and ancient (the recently released Live: 1966).

Simon plays it safe, though the world beats behind his familiar numbers add some adventure. Whatever the case for each man, their being together is probably good performance motivation -- friendly competition and all that.

Dylan and Simon are both old men, yet they still perform music for rebellious, introspective teens.
Dylan and Simon are both old men, yet they still perform music for rebellious, introspective teens.

The duet sections are a bit wobblier. They include one song from each man's catalog (usually "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "The Sounds of Silence") and revolving oldies ("Blue Moon of Kentucky," "I Walk the Line," "The Wanderer"). But to not pair both for at least a few tunes would be an even bigger tragedy than hearing Dylan's croak substituting for Art Garfunkel's choirboy vocalizations.

Ultimately this show is far more than a nostalgia fest from '60s relics, men who began their careers in folk rock but nonetheless have seen great commercial and critical successes.

No other artist in the history of pop music -- or pop culture for that matter -- has been both more lionized and more hindered by his legacy than the boy born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, 1941. Hard-core Dylanologists endlessly analyze every nasally word that drops from his mouth and every song he has ever recorded both officially and otherwise. (Dylan is the most bootlegged artist in music history.) From quickie school textbook blurbs to highfalutin musical treatises that run hundreds of pages, many would have you think that if there were no Bob, there would be no pop music as we know it today.

Credit (or damn) Dylan for being one of the first to pen self-confessional and introspective lyrics, record long stream-of-consciousness tracks, blend country and folk with rock and even create the singer/ songwriter concept that was a radical idea in the early '60s, when performers performed songs, writers wrote them, and the two rarely intermingled. And then there's that voice: More than any other artist, Dylan proved that you don't have to be able to sing to be a rock star. (But really, who else could have sung that material, anyway?)

Dylan's songwriting also helped boost careers, including those of Peter, Paul and Mary ("Blowin' in the Wind"), the Byrds ("Mr. Tambourine Man"), the Turtles ("It Ain't Me, Babe"), Cher ("All I Really Wanna Do"), Jimi Hendrix ("All Along the Watchtower," Dylan's own favorite version) and even Manfred Mann ("Quinn the Eskimo").

It was also during this period that Dylan recorded the song that would cement his prophet status, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

And that's where the danger comes. Perhaps that's why Dylan consciously chose to embody more musical personas than Madonna through the years: not only to diffuse the prophet myth, but to keep himself interested. Though he has dabbled in everything from Christian to country to blues to hard rock music, none caused more controversy than when he simply plugged in an electric guitar.

Bob Dylan would spend the next two decades parlaying his increasingly literate lyrics into a series of records that varied wildly in quality and focus. Singles including "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35" (with its chorus of "everybody must get stoned") are classic rock chestnuts. Some releases received critical hosannas, other a collective groan of "ugh!" or "huh?" John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline basically invented country rock, Desire marked the mid-'70s rock era, and both the double-sided Blonde on Blonde and The Basement Tapes are must-listens. The latter was just a fraction of the tunes recorded in Dylan's country home in New York while he was recovering from injuries suffered from a motorcycle accident. His backing band was the Hawks -- now called The Band -- which ultimately made its own records. Amazingly, none of the Dylan material was ever intended for release, but the clamor for new stuff and shoddy bootlegs indirectly changed that plan.

In the '80s and much of the '90s, Dylan became too much like those classic authors from English Lit. 101. Everybody knew about him, but only a couple had actually heard his music. Dylan returned to form with Infidels in 1983 and Oh Mercy! in 1989, while gigging constantly with his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead.

The past couple of years have been fruitful. Dylan's 1997 record, Time Out of Mind, surprised many by taking three Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal (though voters were probably choosing the legend over the record).

If Bob Dylan's world is in his head and heart, then tourmate Paul Simon's is in the real world outside. Simon has looked beyond U.S. shores for inspiration. His sound has been to Africa (e.g., Graceland) and Brazil (e.g., The Rhythm of the Saints, his last pure pop record, now a decade old).

And though some have accused him of cultural piracy, Simon has never taken credit where it's undeserved and has been largely responsible for exposing many Western ears to world music. People who would never buy a Youssou N'Dour or Milton Nascimento record at least know "You Can Call Me Al" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes."

Born in 1941 in New Jersey, Simon grew up in Queens, New York, surrounded by and obsessed with music. He and school friend Art Garfunkel, performing under the name Tom & Jerry as teenagers, had a minor national hit in 1957-58 with "Hey Schoolgirl." Over the next few years, Simon would record with a variety of other groups and under various pseudonyms, but would reunite with Garfunkel as a folk duo, performing in Greenwich Village coffee houses.

Their 1964 debut, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., initially flopped, but when a savvy producer overdubbed rock instruments onto one track called "The Sounds of Silence," their careers took off.

For five more years, the hits kept coming: "The Boxer," "I Am a Rock," "America" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." The duo, powered by Simon's extremely literate but sometimes pretentious songwriting and their complementary voices, became an act that hip '60s English majors and homemakers alike could love.

The duo hit their peak in 1970 with the release of Bridge over Troubled Water, anchored by the epic title track that Simon initially wrote for himself to sing but begrudgingly handed over to Garfunkel after hearing his achingly beautiful rendition. By this time Simon had already decided to pursue a solo career, feeling he'd outgrown both his partner and their niche in popular music. They have reunited sporadically over the years (most memorably for a 1981 concert in Central Park that spawned a live record), maintaining a love/hate relationship all the while.

The '70s saw only three original studio records from Simon, but they were full of such hits as "Mother and Child Reunion," "Love Me Like a Rock," "Kodachrome," "Slip Slidin' Away," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Still Crazy After All These Years." In 1980 Simon starred in the semiautobiographical film One-Trick Pony. The movie tanked, but it produced the infectious "Late in the Evening."

Through this time, Simon experimented with reggae, gospel, doo-wop and jazz. It all culminated in 1986's Graceland, a seamless blend of African melodies and instruments with pop songwriting. It won a boatload of awards, spawned the careers of many musicians on the record (including vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and heightened interest in what would be termed "worldbeat" music. Simon continued his musical journey to Brazil with the less successful The Rhythm of the Saints, which takes several listens to even begin to fully grasp.

For a good chunk of this decade, Simon has been doing what most good pop songwriters are wont to do once Geritol starts tasting good: write a Broadway musical. Jimmy Buffett has already done it, and Billy Joel probably has a great one in him.

Unfortunately Simon chose as his topic the real-life story of a mentally unstable Puerto Rican gang member who went to jail for a violent murder. Though highly anticipated and greeted with more precurtain press than any musical in Broadway history, The Capeman closed quickly. The Simon name just wasn't enough to attract audiences to this bizarre, disjointed story with an unlikable hero and a hodgepodge of musical styles. Simon released a record of his versions of the material, but it fared only slightly better.

Between them, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon could be the foundation on which modern pop sits. The chance to experience them together live before their Social Security checks start kicking in is too tempting. So maybe it's fitting that the advertising sheets for this tour feature no photos of the two men, but just a pair of trains barreling down their respective tracks. They run together but individually.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon perform Friday, September 17, at 7:30 p.m. at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets are $35 to $95. Call (713)629-3700 or (281)363-3300.

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