Everybody into the pool

Internet game plays on the unpredictability of Bob Dylan

Thursday, February 21, 2002

— He may not know it, but when Bob Dylan signals his band to start a song onstage Friday night in Austin, Tex., more than 1,000 people far from the arena are keenly interested in his choice.

Fans of the veteran troubadour have launched an intricate Internet pool built on their predictions of what Dylan sings in concert.

The pool reflects both the obsessive interest Dylan still draws 40 years into his career and the way this road warrior has structured his career. He generally plays more than 150 concerts a year.

For the fans, it's mostly fun.

"If I ever got a chance to meet him, I'd say 'thanks,"' said one player, Becky Dalton of Westminster, Calif. "I'm almost 49, and he makes me feel 16 when I go to see him. He'd probably look at us and say, 'get a life."'

Dylan is into the second decade of what is jokingly called his "Never-Ending Tour." He's typically on the road for a month or two at a time, rests for a few weeks, then starts anew.

There are 1,054 people from 50 countries competing in the Internet pool for his current set of dates, which ends Sunday in Dallas. He returns on April 5 in Stockholm for a five-week European swing.

The pool was started a year ago by 24-year-old Canadian graduate student and computer expert Arthur Louie, and has quickly grown.

Participants pick a set of songs, which are given point values: low for the songs Dylan plays most frequently, high for the songs he plays rarely.

It's a game that could be created around very few artists. For one thing, not many perform as much as Dylan. For another, most acts are so tightly choreographed their set lists change very little, if at all, from city to city.

The Grateful Dead, while still active, could have probably done it. Phish, now on hiatus, had a similar game going, Louie said.

Dylan usually plays around 20 songs a night. During a 35-date concert swing last fall, he played 92 different songs, Louie said. The pool has exhaustively catalogued his current tour: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Honest With Me" and "Summer Days" were played on each of the first 14 dates.

Twelve different songs, including "Visions of Johanna" and "Simple Twist of Fate," were performed only once.

Dylanologists study his set lists posted every morning after concerts for tendencies. They've noticed he's begun most concerts lately with an acoustic cover tune, and has been performing a lot of songs from his Grammy-nominated album, "Love and Theft."

That might be expected � artists usually try to promote their latest albums on tour � but it hasn't always been the case with Dylan.

His unpredictability is legendary. Larry Shapiro, 46, an environmental attorney from New York City, says he's moved up to 149th place in the current competition mostly because he's given up trying to stay a step ahead of the maestro.

"It's a frightening thought to think that anybody can think like Bob," he said.

Winners of the game can actually win prizes, though Dylan might not appreciate them. The grand prize for the current competition is a CD box set of bootlegged Dylan concerts.

Does Dylan himself know about the game? That's cause for speculation on the Dylan pool; his spokesman, Elliott Mintz, thinks not. Mintz wrote down the Web address when told about the game to check it out himself.

"To my knowledge, he doesn't spend any time online," Mintz said. "He's not a big computer guy."