Monday, July 13, 2009

High Grade - Future Perfect

The Bob Dylan Show, Featuring John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson
11 July 2009: Classic Park, Eastlake, Ohio

The Bob Dylan Show featuring John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson is hitting minor league ballparks across North America through July and August this year, and it’s an amazing concert-going experience. It took little to convince Tracy to go to this show. She loves Dylan. I’m a fan of all three artists to varying degrees, so I was all-in from the beginning. The bonus is that kids under 14 are free, so it was a no-brainer to take the kiddo along as well. Granted, because of ballpark prices, we spent nearly the equivalent of a ticket in concessions for the three of us over the five-plus hours we were at the show, but it was worth every penny.

The show rolled into Northeast Ohio Saturday night by way of Eastlake after a nasty morning storm. We have been by Classic Park too many times to count. Our best friends (and the kiddo’s godparents), Diane and Ivan, have a house up on Lake Erie and the route to and from their house takes us right past the ballpark. But this was our first time inside it. Typical minor league ballpark, but a nice enough venue for a summer show.

All tickets were general admission, with the stadium seats all open and standing room only in front of the stage set up in shallow center field. Taking the kiddo, and because the sun and heat and humidity settled in after the morning storms blew through, we knew we wanted to get some of the east-facing (read: shaded) seats in the stands. We made it to the stadium right around 4pm. There was a good crowd already gathered in anticipation of the 5pm gate opening, but nothing too crazy. But within minutes (literally!) of our arrival, the lines queued up incredibly fast. The hour passed quickly with some amazing people-watching that would continue throughout the night, and the gates opened right on time. (I have nothing but good things to say about the organization of Classic Park in handling the event, and the same for the clockwork of the show – everything started on time and flowed perfectly, although a large screen projection of the performances would have been appreciated.)

Walking through the gates, we ran into one of Tracy’s coworkers and her husband and ended up sitting with them. Once settled, the kiddo and I set out to quench his thirst (blue raspberry Slush Puppie, thank you very much), then Tracy and I grabbed our food while the opening act took the stage promptly at 5:30. The Two Man Gentlemen Band (ironically playing as a quartet) played a competent half-hour set of Vaudevillian banjo-upright bass-kazoo music. (Despite professing he doesn’t like banjo music, the kiddo couldn’t resist the fun factor being amped up with the inclusion of a kazoo.) I complained before the show that I didn’t think there was really a need for an opening act when you have three hall of fame artists on the bill, but the TMGB did a fine job and, given the overall flow of the evening, fit right in.

At 6:15, the Texas flag dropped from the top of the stage and American troubadour Willie Nelson kicked into “Whiskey River” to begin a solid, if somewhat meandering, hour-long set. If it weren’t for the subsequent acts, Nelson’s set could have been considered stellar, but he was ultimately outdone by both Mellencamp and then Dylan. I’m hardly a big country fan, but I enjoy “No Depression” country and love Johnny Cash, Jenny Lewis, and Nelson’s music, so it was great to see him live. And it was even cooler to have Tracy, who has zero-tolerance for country music, lean over and tell me “he’s pretty good. Must be because of all the Johnny Cash you play, I can kinda appreciate the ‘classic’ country music” after “Whiskey River” finished.

Nelson hit all the high-points, including “Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys”, “On the Road Again”, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, Hank Williams’ classic “Move It On Over”, and “Always on My Mind”. Good stuff all around. (On a curious side note, I didn’t quite understand why the faithful went nuts when Willie doffed his cowboy hat for his trademark headband halfway through the set, but it’s all good.)
And Nelson’s son Lukas played lead guitar for the set, and took lead vocals on a fantastic version of “Texas Flood”. The hour-long show was a good time, and I think even Tracy and the kiddo were glad to have been around for it.

Exactly one half-hour later, John Mellencamp took the stage with a blistering set-opening one-two punch of “Pink Houses” and “Paper in Fire” at 7:45. The tempo was perfectly orchestrated to rise and fall between the rockers and the more reflective tunes. He played the new song “Take Some Time to Dream” for only the second time ever live, a nice rendition of “If I Die Sudden”, and a solo acoustic “Small Town” that would have been better served with a full band. The up-side was way up, though. “Check It Out” and an ominous “Rain on the Scarecrow” were incredibly done. No “Jack and Diane”, no “I Need a Lover”, but Mellencamp finished as strong as he started, as the raucous, sing-along of “Crumblin’ Walls” and “Authority Song” had the kiddo on his feet and learning the words on the fly to join in the party with the rest of us.

By the time Mellencamp’s hour-long set completed, it was time to make good on the kiddo’s promised ice cream. So the two of us made our way back out into the concourse for some much deserved frozen confection. (He was an absolute trooper through this marathon concert of a variety of acts with varying levels of interest to a seven-year-old.) Besides, by that time we’d already sunk so much cash into the overpriced concessions, what was another twenty bucks in more food and drink?

At 9:15, the stadium lights went out and the public address system broadcast the well-known introduction that has preceded Dylan’s stage entrance for the past seven years...

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!
With the best seat in the house, Dylan’s Academy Award was perched atop its amplifier pedestal, where it has witnessed genius at every show since it was brought home in 2001. And this show was no exception. I was absolutely amazed at the authority of Dylan’s set. His five-piece backing band is one of the strongest and tightest I’ve ever heard, and Dylan’s organ work was stellar (particularly adding menacing weight to the show-closing “All Along the Watchtower”).

The song selection pulled evenly from old and new, with half coming off of his last three (brilliant) studio releases. “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”, my favorite tune off of the still-heavy-in-my-playlist-rotation Love and Theft from 2001 was magnificent live. And coming five songs into the fourteen song set, it was probably one of the last ones the kiddo remembers before completely sacking out 45-mintues into the hour-and-a-half set. Three of the four cuts from 2006’s Modern Times played in this show closed the main set, starting with a beautiful interpretation of “Workingman’s Blues #2”. Lukas Nelson took over lead guitar duties from Denny Freeman for the classic “Highway 61 Revisited” and never looked back, accompanying the band through the rest of the night, finishing the set with “Ain’t Talkin’” and “Thunder on the Mountain”.

The three-song encore was nothing short of stunning. Together Through Life’s “Jolene” nestled perfectly between the essential “Like a Rolling Stone” and the powerful, show-stopping “All Along the Watchtower”. I have never heard either of those classics sound so vital, so potent, so insistent. The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. Without question.

After the show, we woke up the kiddo from his dead sleep somehow sprawled across a couple of stadium seats (and partially in Tracy’s lap after he shifted in his sleep and nearly took a header out of the chair without waking up), and made our way back to the car and around the corner to Diane and Ivan’s for a well-deserved night's sleep after an exhilarating and exhausting day.

It seems every year we add another artist to the list of Rock Hall inductees we’ve seen live. And this summer, we added two more to that list, along with our first Country Music Hall of Famer, over the course of four hours of music crammed into nearly six hours of a hot summer night.