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The Insider isn't one for tripping down memory lane very often, firmly subscribing to the old saw that nostalgia is for people who don't know what to do next. Still, Bob Dylan's last stand in the Reliant Astrodome last week put two aging structures on mesmerizing display, complete with their enduring strengths and accumulating vulnerabilities.
It was a welcome diversion from the months-long international media siege of the city, focusing on the Enron scandal and the Yates child murders, which has made living in Houston lately akin to an involuntary campout on the set of a never-ending Jerry Springer taping. After all, how many times can a visiting television crew ask you about Enron culture before they're forever banned?
The Dome and Dylan rose to national prominence about the same time, Bob in 1963 and Dome in 1965. Since then they've been intertwined in the lives and dreams of a generation of Houstonians; one as its sports venue and catch-all entertainment crash pad, the other as its soundtrack, musical voice and moral compass.
Some things won't change until both these symbols of '60s daring and dissent are leveled in the not-so-distant future. The rodeo concert reminded listeners yet again that the Dome's reverb-plagued acoustics still suck big-time. That will be the case until the wrecker's ball takes it down, probably after the civic powers that be learn whether it will be needed as a Summer Olympics venue in 2012.
High above the circular revolving rodeo stage, Reliant Energy's Power Vision screens detailed down to the last wrinkle how Dylan's cracked and crevassed face has caught up with his yowling, growling vocals as things only a mother or devoted fan could love.
"He looks about as worn out as the Dome," observed a companion. Actually, the Dome looked a little better, red and orange seats still vibrant from its last face-lift. However, its wide expanses and reflective walls produced that echo-chamber effect. They made Dylan's vocals on his second effort of the set, "Don't Think Twice," the equivalent of several dozen fingernails clawing on a chalkboard.
A member of the city planning commission sitting behind The Insider practically plugged his ears in pain. "This guy's soooo bad," he moaned.
And yet both these institutions -- one of flesh and the other of glass and steel -- still haunt the heart with the echoes of an era redolent with unbounded idealism and ambition, a time when nothing was too big to build and nothing was too strong to defy.
In the biggest college basketball game of the age, the University of Houston upset UCLA under the Dome's girdered sky in 1968. To anyone who watched from the courtside trenches, the idea that the place would become obsolete because it was too small would have been incomprehensible.
Almost as unlikely was the evolution of Dylan from a social protest artist who authored "Masters of War" to a Jesus freak who churned out songs with lyrics like "You've got to serve somebody." Lately, he's morphed again, into an eclectic electric lounge lizard covering the entire catalog of American music from swing to pop.
But in the here-and-now of last week, both the Dome and Dylan worked their magic for one more night. As the concert progressed, Dylan's screech acquired both bite and focus. And the realization that this might be the audience's last night in the Dome made it seem warmer and more intimate, the final party with a funky old friend.
The view from Reliant chairman Don Jordan's Dome box on the fifth level was superb, though the power players were elsewhere. They missed Dylan's scorching closer, "All Along the Watchtower," with its sneering: "Businessmen they drink my wine / plowmen dig my earth. / None of them along the line / know what any of it is worth." That includes stadium naming rights, presumably.
The execs' lack of interest made room for younger, more rock-oriented associates. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were nowhere in sight, since the Enron box had been resold to a consulting firm. Down in the stands, there were plenty of empty seats. Only a small band of devotees fanned out onto the orange dirt arena floor to boogie in front of the band. That proved difficult since the revolving stage repeatedly carried Dylan on a dizzying merry-go-round past them.
They missed out on a rollicking "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," with its refrain of "Everybody must get stoned." That anthem's not likely to get the endorsement of the rodeo's directors for its Future Farmers of America youth cadre, even those planning on a career cultivating cannabis.
Dylan's done the Dome before. Back in the mid-'70s, he brought a motley crew called Rolling Thunder Review, with the principals' faces daubed in white powder makeup. One wit described it as camouflage for the rampant cocaine use of the period.
This time around he couldn't have been more country, spiffed up in a blue opry house-style suit with white zigzag trimming and a purple polka-dot shirt. Earlier in the day Dylan did his bit for the local economy, dropping in unannounced at Stelzig of Texas on South Post Oak to cart off a reported $10,000 in country-western duds.