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Bob Dylan at the United Center: A river runs through it

LOS ANGELES CA - FEBRUARY 13:  Musician Bob Dylan performs onstage during The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards held Staples

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Musician Bob Dylan performs onstage during The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on February 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\GYI0063467825.jpg

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Updated: December 13, 2012 10:34AM

Like old man river, Bob Dylan keeps rolling along.

And that is meant in a literal sense.

Dylan’s present-day pastiche of country, blues and soul is delivered from the muddy depths of the Mississippi River. This was reaffirmed Friday night when the 71-year-old Dylan and his five-piece band rolled into the United Center for a recital in Americana for a two-thirds-full audience. (Curtains were dropped over the high-rise 300 section).

Since his early summer concerts Dylan has taken command on a loudly miked grand piano. In fact, the only time he played guitar during Friday’s 90-minute set was the show opener, a fast blues instrumental mash-up that sounded like Elmore James meets “Watching the River Flow.” Not sure about that, but “The Levee’s Gonna Break” (modernized from Memphis Minnie) was for sure a showstopper. Dylan re-reinvented his song through Sun Records rockabilly rhythms, stand-up bass, banjo and his own honky-tonk piano.

With Dylan switching to piano, I always consider his late compadre Jim Dickinson, who played on Dylan’s beautiful “Time Out of Mind” record. The Memphis-area patriarch of the North Mississippi All-Stars, Dickinson was a fluid, boogie-woogie piano player influenced by Chicago ragtime pianist Two Ton Baker.

I’ll always remember Dickinson sitting in his trailer telling me how seminal rock ’n’ roll comes from the river, New Orleans and the “sweet spot” on the Chickasaw Bluff. There is density along the river. Dickinson believed molecules collided in higher altitudes. I know Dylan bought into this. In his 2004 memoir “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” Dylan wrote of Dickinson, “We were from opposite ends of the Mississippi River. ... His influences were jug band and early rock-and-roll be bop, same as mine.

“Jim had manic purpose.”

A piece of Dickinson is floating along for this portion of Dylan’s tour.

Dylan’s encore on Friday was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” redone as a soul song more in the style of Stevie Wonder’s cover than the original folk ballad. “Ballad of a Thin Man” was turned inside out through heavy reverb that made Dylan sound like he was being backed by Howlin’ Wolf. “Highway 61 Revisited” blasted through Memphis with hard-driving Slim Harpo rhythms and George Recile’s adroit brush and pom-pom drumming. Dylan’s typically river-murky vocals were loud and clear, especially when he offered elegant piano beneath the ballad “Make You Feel My Love.”

Opening act Mark Knopfler played on Dylan’s 1983 recording of “Blind Willle McTell,” and he was onstage Friday to play guitar in Dylan’s interpretation of the blues ballad as a Cab Calloway number, complete with a wide-brimmed Calloway-style hat and even a Calloway shuffle across the stage.

This must be why Dylan didn’t allow any photography on Friday.

Knopfler also guested on a sped-up version of “Things Have Changed” and an etheral, loopy “Tangled Up in Blue,” where his lead guitar folded organically into the touring band. It was a nice recovery from a comatose opening set.

Knopfler is an empathetic guitarist, but his vocals are so void of phrasing that long singing doses put you to sleep. Knopfler and his Celtic-influenced band didn’t make waves with the older audience until his encore, a searing version of Dire Straits’ 1985 hit “So Far Away.” And on a warm Friday night the Mississippi River was so close to Chicago.

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