On the road leading into Cooperstown was a big wooden sign in front of a house proclaiming: “We love Bob and Willie.” Maybe a mile later a similar, more official sign: “The Cooperstown Fire Department welcomes Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.” Things have changed in America. 30 years ago, even 20, this was unthinkable.
Cooperstown was in a festive mood, and the stadium was right in the center of town. Every house in town that wanted to was making lots of bucks parking cars on their lawns. The atmosphere outside the stadium where people were forming several lines was pretty mellow. Various vendors selling food and of course the official Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson souvenir stands. The security people even let you behind the barricades if you had to use the facilities and they even opened the gates an hour early surprising the first-in-liners who’d been there all day and had to rush their chairs and other provisions back to their cars.
The gates open and people are literally running to the stage way on the other side of the stadium from the stands and the two-hour wait begins. At exactly 6:30 and Hot Club of Cowtown, a western swing trio from Austin took the stage and started playing. And they were hot, the guitarist playing some amazing jazz runs and the bassist slapping out the rhythm like mad. If they were nervous – and who wouldn’t be, opening a highly promoted tour for two American music icons – they didn’t show it. After a set that included a couple of Bob Wills tunes, some originals and ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” they ended their set precisely at 7 and Willie Nelson’s crew started making sure everything was working. While that was happening one of Willie’s crew comes on-stage and tosses some Willie Nelson for president posters into the crowd. 17 minutes later Willie Nelson and Family took the stage. For those who knew, the big question was would Willie play guitar. But after spending a couple of minutes waving to the crowd, something he would do continually throughout his set, Willie strapped on his ancient battered, early ’50s Martin gut string – the one on the verge of collapse with the big hole next to the sound hole, the wood worn away by decades of picking.
Willie’s been doing pretty much the same set for 30 years (with a couple of variations) opening with “Whiskey River” and then right into all the big hits he wrote, “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Nightlife.” Then it’s tribute time to Lefty Frizzell, Ray Charles, Kristofferson, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard with stops along the way into gospel, pop and whatever else he might feel like singing. Basically, as the leader of America’s foremost Western swing band told me a long time ago, “Willie comes out and sings every song he knows.” Well, make it the ones that fit into his set. And when he says family band, he’s not kidding. The same lineup has been with him for decades and includes his sister Bobbie on piano and this time around, two of his sons Lukas, a pretty hot blues guitar player who looked like he couldn’t have been more than 14, and Micah who was younger on percussion. It’s a pretty crazy band, who are both tight and ragged at the same time. At Cooperstown they were tight. Nelson, asides from being the most relaxed performer you’re ever going to see on a stage, rarely sings on the beat. He sings behind it, ahead of it, every which way around it and at times you think they’re going to lose it entirely, but somehow they always come together on the chorus.
Some may find Nelson’s little shenanigans, constantly waving to the crowd, throwing hats back and forth tedious, but it works. Unlike the other performer on the bill, he lets the crowd know that he knows they’re there, and he does it an almost beatific way, yet never loses sight of the song he’s singing and playing. At Cooperstown, Nelson played exactly an hour.
About 35 minutes later Bob Dylan took the stage to the usual fanfare and announcement and ripped into “Drifter’s Escape” spitting out the words with a vengeance. They then went into “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” The band was incredibly tight, the song now more a country swing arrangement than the blues shuffle of previous incarnations. “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” provided a rocking interlude before it was back to the same territory with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” making me wonder if this was the first time this and “Baby Tonight” were done on the same show. Then came a blistering “Seeing the Real You At Last” with great guitar work by Stu Kimball followed by the current arrangement of “Girl From the North Country,” with Larry finger-picking and Kimball providing atmospheric country-tinged guitar fills obtained by turning the volume knob on his Fender Strat. Dylan was singing strong and well, and blowing lots of harp. “To Make You Feel My Love” came next and it occurred to me that this was the most middle-of-the-road set I’d ever seen Dylan do, which was verified by the next song “Forever Young.” The remainder of the show maintained the intensity level, though it was a somewhat mellow intensity level, with an acoustic “Don’t Think Twice,” going right into “Like A Rolling Stone.” On the latter song Dylan’s keyboard was quite audible and I started thinking he attacks the piano keys like a cat toying with a mouse. At exactly 10:30 the show ended, the major surprise being there were no duets of Dylan and Nelson.