08/12/04 Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen, Maryland

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.

08/10/04 Dutchess Stadium, Fishkill, NY

Sometimes magic comes in the strangest of places, and sometimes magic happens in surprising ways when you least expect it.

Who would have thought that in the somewhat sleepy burg of Fishkill, New York where Fishkill’s finest greeted concert-goers with dope-sniffing German Shepherds that magic could happen?  Then again this is somewhere in the territory where Heinrich Hudson used to bowl and headless horsemen roamed the land.

First, Willie Nelson took the stage with an extra band member, classical and all-around musician David Amram (who a long time ago jammed with Bob and Allen Ginsberg) who played among other things French horn, penny-whistle (two at once), flute and an exotic looking drum, and somehow made it all work.  Nelson also shook things up a bit adding “City Of New Orleans,” which found his band unable to keep up with him at the beginning in a rather grand collapse that I always felt they were capable of..  Willie nonchalantly said, “They’ll come around,” and eventually they did when he slowed down the beat after a couple of glances back that probably said “Get It Together.”  The best surprise of his set however (by request) was “Pancho and Lefty.”

Bob Dylan took the stage wearing a black suit with red piping and a bright red shirt.  From the minute he walked on he seemed quite animated, and immediately picked up a harp for “Rainy Day Women.”  “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” followed and for whatever reason worked quite well in the second spot, picking up the already energetic pace.  Looking around, I noticed for the first time this tour the band was wearing matching light gray suits  (I figured Stu Kimball’s tour wardrobe had finally been created).  “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” still in its recent staccato arrangement came next and Bob was starting to toy with his vocals, stretching out the last word on key lines, “Look out now, the saints are marching throuuuuuuuugh,” and playing a fairly crazy harp solo that had brief echoes of 1966.

“Lonesome Day Blues” kicked things even higher, with Dylan growling out the vocal (“Lawd I never slept with her even once” and Larry and Stu flying on guitars.

After a brief conference with Tony, the band kicked into “Memphis Blues Again” with Larry on acoustic guitar.  This is not one of my favorite live songs – he’s never touched the original.  But on this version things started to happen.  On one of the choruses, he answered “Can this really be the end,” with his new favorite phrase, “I don’t know,” but then on Kimball’s guitar solo, which found Larry moving from straight rhythm to “Blonde On Blonde” style guitar fills, Dylan stood straight up and was just digging the sound coming from his band.  He just looked totally pleased and the expression on his face seemed to say, “I have one great band,” and he does.  The band on this tour has for the most part been impeccable and it’s not mechanical either.

“Lay Lady Lay” came next, and during the song Dylan found a bass piano riff he really liked and kept repeating it throughout the song, obviously enjoying himself.  But then on the harp solo, something remarkable happened, something I have never seen at a Dylan concert.  He played a little riff on the harp, looked at Stu and Stu answered him on guitar, then Bob answered back on harp and Stu answered back.  They kept up the call and response for a couple of measures before Bob took over the harp solo and ended the song.  Not even in the acoustic duets with G.E. Smith did this ever happen.  And considering the song was “Lay Lady Lay,” it was totally unexpected.

A cool version of “Bye and Bye” came next, Dylan placing emphasis on the last line “How loyal and true a man can be,” which went into a kicking “Highway 61” with excellent guitar all around, and Larry grinning broadly at Kimball’s lead solo.

Then came the high point of the show, a simply incredible version of “Not Dark Yet.”  It was slow, it was soulful, the guitars beautiful and perfect, with a great harp solo.  But it was the vocal, Dylan digging deep into the lyrics, seeming to find every possible level of meaning all at once, getting spookier with each verse, each line, using a tight staccato phrasing almost reminiscent of the Basement Tapes on “Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from,” and then, you could almost see him deciding how to sing the next line, and he went for it, from somewhere deep inside came this soaring voice from long ago: “Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer,” and he held the last word and that note and everyone in the crowd (around me anyway) was awestruck.  It was a completely remarkable, totally moving moment.

“Honest With Me” gave the crowd a chance to recover, but Bob was having none of it.  On the instrumental break he walked that crazy, almost goofy Dylan walk dance to the front center of the stage, his shirt partially unbuttoned (it was a hot and humid night) pointing his hands almost like pistols at the crowd, except he’s doing it exactly in time with the drum beats.  It was hysterical and great.

Larry went back to acoustic for an intense “Masters of War,” Dylan venomously spitting out the lyrics: “I hope that you DIE” and then repeating the first, stretching out the line “see through your mask,” except on mask, it wasn’t one note, he went up and down the scale so it came out kind of like “ma-ah-ah-ah-ask,” and it was nasty too.

The rest of the show stayed on the same level with “Tambourine Man” leading off the usual encores.  This was easily the best Dylan concert I’ve seen in at least two years.  It made the three hour ride home, after six days on the road totally enjoyable.

08/08/04 Campanelli Stadium. Brockton, MA

Brockton, Massachusetts is a community apparently of strip malls located a little less than 30 miles south of Boston. The best thing about Brockton was we found a motel immediately on exiting the highway that turned out to be right down the road, in fact walking distance from Campanelli Stadium.

The scene outside at Brockton was a bit different. Brockton police on carts kept coming by asking people to clear the sidewalk when all they were doing was standing and talking. Considering the walkway was right at the stadium not on a street where people had to get by, it was unnecessary. Occasionally people in line would complain to a cop about people who got in line in front of them. Unlike Cooperstown, which is high up in the mountains and was quite chilly and Yale which is kind of near the Long Island Sound and also chilly, the weather was warm. This time we didn’t stake out a place in line, and ended up walking about two blocks to get at the back of a line to a second entrance. It made no difference at all in respect to getting near the stage. This time however, the vibe down in front was strange. People crowded in close a lot earlier and they weren’t pleasant about it. Combine this with the people who think they are the center of the universe, not aware at all that anyone else, let alone a few thousand people are around them.

Willie Nelson changed things around slightly by opening with “Living In The Promised Land,” and introducing his guitarist son said, “Now that’s homeland security.” During Nelson’s set, some sixties burn-out acid casualty tried who’d been standing maybe five rows of people back from the stage tried to weasel his way up front, led by someone who turned out to be a cop. A bunch of people complained to security. Finally the burn out caught one of the baseball caps Nelson was constantly throwing from the stage and vanished. No one was sure whether the cop was working undercover or just there.

During the wait for Dylan, the security force decided to remove someone who made the mistake of accidentally tripping over (or almost tripping over to be more accurate) the one person who decided to sit down on the ground and couldn’t be seen considering he was in a huge crowd. But this guy, who was there from when the doors open and was  there with his son had done nothing wrong. The security guy just decided to focus on him and have him removed when there were other people being way more annoying.

Finally Dylan came on and rushed through “Rainy Day Women,” and then did a powerful “God Knows,” quite possibly the best version of this song I’ve seen in concert. Then it was a speedy “Tweedle Dum,” and you had the feeling both Dylan and the band wanted to get through this show as quickly as possible. “Forever Young,” led into a fast, somewhat snarling, “Things Have Changed” which went into “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” The best part of “Tonight,” was on the bridge when Dylan sang, “Is it really any wonder,” he answered himself with “I Don’t Know.” A super-fast “Highway 61” came next, and I had a feeling the one acoustic number would be something special and it was, a close to perfect rendition of “Po Boy” with both Larry and Stu on acoustics, and I realized it was the first show this year (and perhaps longer) where two acoustic guitars were used on a song.

“High Water” came next and I decided I’d had enough of being in the front. It just wasn’t fun and it seemed like a fight would break out any minute. So I made my way through the crowd to discover a precious commodity called air, and another one called room. The strange thing was the closer I got to the back of the stadium, the louder the sound was and it was extremely loud. There was a lot of room in the back, some people dancing, some people clumped in little groups, some people not paying attention at all.

It was then the second high point of the night happened, a truly beautiful “Saving Grace,” with Larry playing gorgeous pedal steel and Dylan really singing. For “Summer Days,” I decided to see what things were like from the grand stand.  With Dylan off to the side, it was almost impossible to make him out, the huge stage looked almost deserted though the music blasted.

Again the encores began with “Tambourine Man,” but the rest of the show didn’t really matter. I left the show feeling what I’d felt when the tour was announced.  Baseball stadiums are for baseball, not music.  And unless you have a good pair of binoculars (a telescope would be more like it) if you want to see what’s going on. If you want to see the interplay between the musicians, you have to get near the front.

08/07/04 Yale Field, West Haven, Connecticut

We arrived at the stadium about an hour before the doors opened. The circus atmosphere of Cooperstown was replaced by a more mellow crowd lounging around in line. Once again, it was pretty easy to get right up front. Hot Club of Cowtown did a similar set to the night before and everything seemed a bit looser. Willie Nelson came on a tiny bit later and did virtually the same set, except he played about 15 minutes longer, adding a couple of Hank Williams songs as well as “Living In The Promised Land.”

The scene at the front can be fun and interesting. You notice the same people in the same spots at “the rail” – both Nelson and Dylan fans.  But it can also be intense and claustrophobic, especially the closer it gets to Dylan taking the stage.

Dylan came on at about 8:50 and opened with “Maggie’s Farm,” rocking very hard and continued rocking with “Watching the River Flow” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True,” which had more punch than usual, and a cool harp solo though he did mess up some of the lyrics. Hardly pausing between songs, he took things higher with “Sad and Lonesome Day,” then slowing down for an excellent “Just Like A Woman,” still in it’s Memphis soul arrangement at the beginning.  “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee” kicked things back into motion and even though this song appears at every show (or so it seems) both Dylan and the band put something extra into it that made you notice.

An incredible version of “Love Sick” led into “Highway 61 Revisited,” and it was obvious both Dylan and the band were having a lot of fun – the guitars soared. Larry switched to cittern and an ominous chord followed, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure what was coming next. The ominous chord turned into a stunning “Hollis Brown,” with Dylan nailing the vocal, never missing a step, not only enunciating every word, but every syllable. It was the high point of the night, and not even the security force dealing with a drunk who was apparently falling into everyone around him could detract from it.

“Honest With Me,” led into “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and while when I first heard the new arrangement, I felt that it was a new arrangement simply for the sake of a new arrangement, at Yale it not only built and built, but made total sense.

On “Summer Days,” they were obviously again having fun, with Stu throwing in a Count Basie riff that made Dylan crack up. “Tambourine Man,” replaced the previous night’s “Don’t Think Twice” as usual followed by “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Watchtower.”

It was simply one of those nights where everything worked and the energy never let up, the band totally on, and Dylan singing so forcefully that you had no doubt why you came to see him.

08/06/04 Doubleday Field, Cooperstown, NY

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.