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Bob Dylan, First Energy Park, Lakewood, NJ: When I left my home the sky split open wide July 23, 2009

Posted by Anton A in American music, Bob Dylan.
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“Dylan had the echo off the grandstand working like a high mountain marauder.”

I want to acknowledge this fine line from a review by Jim R. It captures the essence of what makes these ballpark shows such a unique experience, standing in the outfield in front of the stage, immersed in a special sort of Surround Sound.

But that’s the middle of the story. Not that the beginning had much to recommend it. Thanks to the long drive, miserable rain, traffic & equally miserable parking situation around First Energy Park, we missed Willie Nelson’s opening set.

We made it to the stadium in time for a rousing 70-minute performance from John Mellencamp & band. With the rain continuing to fall in the deepening twilight, we watched the show from the walkway above the grandstand seats; everything seemed too wet for us to venture any further into the ballpark.

Last time we saw a Mellencamp show, on the tour with John Fogerty opening a couple of years ago, they had the violin & keys/accordion dominating the sound, an interesting approach that ultimately seemed to take the edge off most of the songs. This time the guitars were back up in the mix, giving the performance a lot more bite, with the violin and accordion still prominent enough to add that heartland-music atmosphere.

Mellencamp was in excellent voice. It was too soggy for me to keep a set list but there were particularly fine renditions of Paper In Fire, Rain On The Scarecrow, Check It Out, Crumblin’ Down, an acoustic Small Town, Authority Song, and a sobering, haunting slower tune (I don’t know the title) about being “almost done with this body.” He put anyone who might remember his heart attack, or have had their own brushes with mortality, in touch with some raw emotions for a few minutes there.

Mellencamp’s game isn’t always subtle. He has a gift for the big, obvious, memorable musical hook, and he’s made the most of that. He’s also very smart about choosing the people he tours with, and when it’s time to take the stage he puts all he’s got into every performance. He’s earned a lot of respect in my book.

I’d grabbed a vile hot dog towards the end of the set, had to have something to renew my strength for the upcoming slog to the outfield for Mister Dylan. We made our way down the grandstand aisle, hopped over a big mud puddle & walked out to left field, where’d they’d covered the ground with thick rubbery mats that made getting around out there vaguely like walking on a waterbed.

The lights went down and the familiar Copland strains came up. My brain immediately went into overdrive, neurons I didn’t know I had started firing. What is it about a Dylan show that affects you like a hit of speed? Is it the unmatchable resonance that he brings to the stage? Is it not knowing which songs you’re going to hear? If you follow the tour setlists on line, you know that certain songs will pop up in certain slots, and you also know that it’s impossible to predict exactly how the band is going to get there.

When they lights came up, we saw that Dylan was decked out in the usual black hat, a natty lavender coat, white shirt & the familiar single-gray-stripe-on-black bellhop pants. He strapped on his electric guitar. Holding it just shy of vertical, he showed us that he’s still got some chops with Watching The River Flow.

They went into Girl Of The North Country. Dylan sang the first verse in a bit of a slur as “If you’re traveling to the north country fair, with the wind…. on the border….” You immediately wonder why he’s done this. Was it a deliberate lyrical change? Did he forget the words? Was he simply preoccupied with something technical early in the show? Whatever it was, he sang the familiar full lyric loud and strong in the repeated first verse at the end of the song.

That was all we’d hear from Bob’s guitar that night. When he moved to the organ on Lonesome Day Blues, it was clearly higher in the mix than on the previous tours I’ve seen, you could hear him pumping out every chord. To my ears the band had a great sound, like some undiscovered band that you’d stumble onto in an Appalachian roadhouse somewhere, except with one of America’s great songwriters and most distinctive voices at the helm.

You run across a number of reviews that long for the days when Larry Campbell was in the band and the guitarists took more solos. Those days are gone and Dylan has taken the band in a direction where the guitars are much more restrained. Does he want the focus to be on Garnier and Recile? Visually they’re at the center of the stage set. Their bass & drum work is so tight, so accomplished, that it’s easy to get lost in their playing until snap! suddenly a whole song has gone by. Maybe this is part of Dylan’s ongoing desire to turn the notion of a conventional rock show on its head.

Regardless, the effect of Dylan’s current approach is to put the song itself at center stage; each one seems to float there, conjured into being by this backroads band. On those few songs when Dylan takes the center mike, he’s simply allowing the entity that’s there to inhabit him and speak through his voice. That echo off the grandstand seemed to envelop us in the songs more and more as the evening progressed, enhancing the spooky-medicine-show atmosphere that always seems to hover over Dylan’s act these days.

Back to the show: Tweedle Dee was sharp and rocking, propelled by Kimball’s & Freeman’s precise guitar work. Somewhere early in the set the rain had finally abated, which added a little touch of irony to Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Honest With Me has a new minor-key arrangement and a hard edge that added a dark dimension to the song; it was a highlight of the night. Workingman’s Blues was elegant and elegiac, driven by a gorgeous acoustic guitar chords from Stu Kimball. Highway 61 rocked hard, as usual.

Ain’t Talkin’, for me, was the next highlight; I think the song is one of Dylan’s recent masterpieces and always find the live performance spellbinding. Clearly a large chunk of the crowd disagreed, since they took the song as their cue to exit the outfield and leave the stadium. Everybody gets something different from a Dylan show.

Thunder On The Mountain, always rousing, and the three encore songs showed up in their usual slots. Jolene works very well in the encore; it’s nice to hear a song from the new album at that point in the show.

Maybe it was my waterlogged ears at that point, but Watchtower seems to have a choppier, more angular feel this year that owes as much to The Clash as it does to Hendrix. Maybe I’m delusional. In any event I enjoyed this rendition of that familiar song much more than I’d expected; I think they’re continuing to reinvent it.

I’d carried my waterproof binoculars out onto the field, and I can testify that Dylan was having a great time with this show, flashing little grins all night. I’m not talking about the smile-like grimace that he frequently uses to get the right tone from a word at line’s end, I’m talking about actual grins. The man’s already done 47 shows this year and he’s still having a blast. Whatever magic he’s found to drive him at this point in his life, it’s working. It’s an inspiration.

I hate to return to mundane details. Exiting the ballpark into a dimly lit parking lot and more rain was very disorienting. There were no busses visible where we’d been dropped off. Most of the staff had no idea where the pickup site was and the few who did seemed incapable of explaining how to get there. We eventually found the bus queue by following a few people who seemed to be walking purposefully somewhere. It took us 45 minutes to get back to the car. You have to suffer for art in some way, even when you’re just a spectator.

Setlist: Watching The River Flow, Girl Of The North Country, Lonesome Day Blues, Chimes Of Freedom, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Honest WIth Me, Workingman’s Blues #2, Highway 61 Revisited, Ain’t Talkin’, Thunder On The Mountain.

Encores: Like A Rolling Stone, Jolene, All Along The Watchtower.

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