Five days less than a decade ago I went to a Bob Dylan Concert in Hershey, PA at the Hershey Park Stadium. It started raining on the way there, a heavy, steady rain and it rained the entire show as the football field turned to mud. The stadium was nowhere near full, and Dylan and the band put on a good show with quite a few rain references throughout, encoring with “Hard Rain.” I spent a good deal of time at that show trying to figure out what secret they’d discovered to keep from getting electrocuted as the wind was blowing the rain onto the stage.
Two months later I saw the Rolling Stones at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. It was October and a lot colder and again the field turned to mud. I swore never again.
I woke up this morning and the sky was a very strange gray, some combination of clouds and pollution and the day felt weird in general. The weather reports were terrible. This has been the rainiest summer I can remember in Philly with surrounding communities and Philly itself including my house and my block getting flooded. Hurricanes were invading Florida and making their way up the East Coast. I picked up my friend Seth and we headed South in I-95 straight into a couple of traffic jams. Just as we were crossing from Delaware into Maryland as the Governor of New Jersey was announcing he was gay and had cheated on his wife with another man and resigning it started to pour. The signs on I-95 in Maryland that are usually used to announce traffic delays all said: “To report suspicious activity, call some 800 number.” It seemed like there was one every five minutes. Fifteen minutes later the sun came out and maybe 15 minutes later after crossing the Susquehanna River we saw the stadium from the Interstate and the tour busses parked along side of it. We made it past security who were checking every centimeter of every bag, and down onto the field. I’d told Seth the field was the only place to see the show and he didn’t believe me until he saw where the stage was and saw where the stands were. In some ways Ripken was the nicest of the stadiums I’d been to especially in design though Yale was much older, funkier and had more charm. Ripken was also the smallest and the least prepared. Whereas every other stadium had 20 or 30 portojohns or whatever the hell they’re called this year, Ripken had 8. Like Cooperstown the only beverage you could buy on the field itself was beer. We made it to about ten rows of people from the stage, right in the center. Very ominous looking black storm clouds were moving North from Baltimore. About 15 minutes before Hot Club of Cowtown took the stage, a single very scary lightning bolt somewhere to the south went all the way to the ground.
Hot Club took the stage and it started to drizzle, then it started to pour. Then it started to rain the hardest rain I’d ever felt in my life. The drops were huge and hurt when they hit your skin. I can’t remember whether it was the second or third song, but all of a sudden the standup bass player jumps back and they stop playing, moving to the back of the stage as fast as they could. Most people started running for the upper deck of the stands. There wasn’t any room under the roof. A bunch of people went into the various restrooms for the next half hour. Everyone was completely soaked and most people including myself had raincoats. They did little to help. Finally the rain started to ease up and Willie Nelson took the stage at approximately the same time he usually does, opening with “Living In The Promised Land,” and following it up with “Pancho and Lefty,” and a bunch of other songs before going into the medley of his classic original country songs. There were sound problems from the start. At first Willie’s mic didn’t work, and his crew switched it fast. Then later on, the sound went out of the main speakers completely and it seemed that they never really got it back. I don’t know what the people in the stands heard, but the people near the stage were hearing the band through the band’s monitors. And it was a shame, because Willie was doing a much different set than on the other shows I’ve seen on this tour, including “Milk Cow Blues,” and he let his son Lukas (already a good blues player) sing a verse of “Texas Flood,” and the kid can sing too.
But as Willie’s set went on, more ominous clouds were moving north. He ended his set maybe five minutes early and there seemed to me more of a rush than usual to change the stage. During this time the front got really crowded, so crowded you couldn’t move, you couldn’t lift your arms, and it was not a Bob Dylan crowd. It was trailer park white trash. Yes, it was the night of the morons in Aberdeen and you didn’t wanna even consider messing with them. Big motorcycle guys with tattoos. Women chatting on cell phones (even during Willie’s set), some weird guy complaining about cigarette smoke and bumming them every chance he could. It was really weird. Some girl standing next to me started yelling out “Bobby D” in a shrill shriek for no apparent reason every 30 seconds. I doubt she could name the title of a single Bob Dylan album.
It started to drizzle and a hatless Bob took the stage and launched into “Drifter’s Escape.” Once again he was on, the band sounded tight, but it wasn’t easy to pay attention to the music. Much to my amazement, the one video screen was actually showing Dylan. He then did a not bad “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and the rain got a little harder, and on into “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” and the band is really kicking.
By now it was really pouring and all of a sudden Bob’s at the center stage mic and talking and I’m trying to understand what he’s saying but the girl is still shrieking “Bobbeeee” in my ear and people are having conversations all over and then they wheel another guitar amp on the stage and Willie Nelson is there, with his sons Lucas (on guitar) and Michael (on tambourine) and Bob’s saying something like “I’d do anything for this guy and he’d do anything for me and we’d do anything for each other,” and he’s laughing and runs back to the keyboard and there into “Milkcow Blues,” which Willie had already done that night. And they’re jamming and Bob is smiling big time and then he does a verse and it wasn’t from “Milk Cow Blues,” but I can’t quite make out what it is because this motorcycle guy is dancing into me and this girl is shrieking “Bobbeee.” And I’m hoping that maybe just maybe they’ll do another song, like maybe “Heartland,” but Willie and song leave the stage and they’re into a fairly loose but smoking “Cold Iron Bounds” and all this time the rain is coming down fast and hard. My pocket notebook is soaked, not that I could lift my hands to jot anything down, my cigarettes despite being inside my raincoat are crumbling bits of paper and tobacco and this moron is still shrieking. I consider moving to the back, but they’re starting something that sounds sort of familiar, but not that familiar and it turns into the new arrangement of “Sugar Baby,” that has a kind of very light, swingy, jazz feel pushing it into something different than the studio version. And this of course is one of those moments that you go to shows for but most of the people around me don’t know it and start conversations and Bobbeee is still being yelled into my right ear. They tear into “Highway 61,” and somewhere around this time, some people leave and a new space appears. I grab it immediately and then manage to move up further away from the shrieker.
The lights are down, but I can see Larry has his fiddle and they’re into (amazingly enough) “Floater” of all things, and it’s good too with Stu on acoustic and Bob emphasizing the line “Cold rain can give you the shivers.”
Larry puts down the fiddle and George kicks the drums into (finally) “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and he’s really singing it, nailing every line and then it was into “Honest With Me,” with Bob again taking the front of the stage to do whatever it is that he does up there and then “Summer Days.” I decided I was wet enough and we headed for the back. They returned to the stage pretty fast and skipping the acoustic song went right into “Like A Rolling Stone.” I looked at my watch and it wasn’t even 10 pm, and I figure Bob decided it was time for everyone to come in out of the rain and was ending the show early. There were small lakes at the back of the field and my pants were so soaked (and I wore shorts thinking skin dries quicker than cloth) that they felt like a 30 pound weight around my waist.
Luckily traffic was moving on I-95 and there weren’t any flood, just an outrageous five-dollar toll for going maybe 15 miles on the Maryland Turnpike and finally the rain stopped at the Pennsylvania border. With no show tomorrow, with the weather forecast even worse, the people further down South just might luck out, but there is that other hurricane moving into Florida.