Bob Dylan, one of the seminal influences in popular culture and music of this century, spent most of the '70s on a career-ride as curved and dangerous as the one that almost wiped him out in the late '60s. Artistically, the most extreme corner appeared in 1979, when Dylan embraced the born-again Christian experience. Critics, who tend to professional agnosticism, quickly forsook him, though the ascetic pessimism and visionary wonder of his new work was really a constant from the start of his career.

Despite two uneven albums, Dylan has not wavered in his beliefs. At a packed Merriweather Post Pavilion, he showed that he's become not only comfortable, but more expansive in his faith. On "You Gotta Serve Somebody," the opening song, Dylan unveiled the fiery musical posture he would maintain throughout the evening. Backed by an all-star band, Dylan romped through more than two pulsating and exuberant hours of classic rocked "Maggie's Farm" harder than it's ever been done before; he added compelling versions of "Like a Rolling Stone," "Ballad of a Thin Man," "A Simple Twist of Fate," "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blue" and "Forever Young." Dylan showed a renewed enthusiasm and comforting pride in his older (and for a while abandoned) work, though the versions of "Blowing in the Wind," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Girl of the North Country" did seem a bit rusty and unfocused.

One new song, about Lenny Bruce, echoed back to the "Blonde on Blonde" period and seemed less didactic than Dylan's Christian songs.

As a performer, Dylan was highly charismatic in a way he hasn't been in years. Dressed comfortably and moving about stage with renewed grace, he seemed to be having a great time. His phrasing remains as intriguing as ever. Probably more rewarding for Dylan was the fact that the audience accepted his present direction as warmly and enthusiastically as they did his more familiar path.