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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fair Weather Friends

Posted By on Tue, Jul 21, 2009 at 11:02 AM

It's still only July and I've already made my annual trip to the Champlain Valley Expo. Except this time I traded in the cotton candy and pig races for a night of American rock legends. We're talking bona fide legends here, not has-beens or might-bes like Foreigner or Kid Rock.

I am of course referring to last Friday's "Bob Dylan Show" with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson. The fairground is a great place to see a big show like this. The open air gives you volume AND clarity. I love that Dylan is playing minor league ballparks and fairgrounds, rather than hockey arenas or stadiums. Or civic auditoriums. Luckily, the weather cooperated. And by that I mean at least the wind wasn't blowing while it rained. It didn't matter much anyway, because all the mojo working on stage distracted me from the sporadic downpours. I would say Mellencamp impressed me the most, but all three guys put on a good show.

Willie started things off with a rousing set of blues and gospel standards, as well as his own best-known songs. "On The Road Again" and "Always On My Mind" sounded fine alongside "Hey, Good Lookin'," "May The Circle Remain Unbroken" and "Moonlight In Vermont" — the last of which he proclaimed to be his favorite song of all time.

Mellencamp came out blazing with "Pink Houses" and played a generous mix of old stuff and new. His band was impressive; they followed his every move as he prowled around the stage like a … oh, forget it. Both the fiddle and accordion players added some nice color to their sound, especially during folky acoustic songs like "Small Town." They kicked out the jams on the last two numbers — "Crumblin' Down" and "Authority Song" — like The Stones circa '72. It was easily the loudest and hardest rocking part of the night.

Dylan's set was mostly newer songs with some old favorites at the beginning and the end. It was cool to hear a minor gem like "Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat," which he opened with. Another song I was psyched to hear was the slide guitar classic "Rollin' And Tumblin'." Just like his last time here, Dylan started out on guitar, playing lead for the first two songs before switching to the organ for the remainder of the show. He also threw in some tasteful harmonica licks here and there.

His voice has clearly suffered a bit over the years, and is now kind of a phlegmy groan. It might have sounded better if it were buried in the mix a little, since I couldn't understand what he was saying anyway. I didn't even recognize "Highway 61 Revisited" until the chorus. But part of that is because he never plays the songs like they sound on the records, even changing the melodies. There has been a lot of talk about this: some folks like it, some don't. I think he's had more success at reinterpreting his own material than other artists, like Lou Reed to name one.

A Dylan song is fluid, morphing through the years and tours — just like all the old folk and blues songs that he grew up on. Don't get me wrong, I do love to rock out and sing along to all the old hits. But that's why God gave us classic rock radio.


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