Bob and Willie hit one out of the park 

The delightfully retro-styled handbills, print ads and placards hurl descriptive terms at the public: “Blues! Folk! Jazz! Rock N’ Roll!”

One might be forgiven for assuming there will be at least four distinctly different bands taking part in the highly-anticipated Summer package tour known as The Bob Dylan Show.

Yet, this is only a triple bill.

Even more impressive is the fact that alert ticketholders for this amazing outdoor concert will likely be able to discern elements of reggae, R & B, soul, Americana, zydeco, funk, country, bluegrass, showtunes, old-timey vaudeville hokum, and Celtic music in the performances of Dylan, his iconoclastic compatriot Willie Nelson, and their opening act, rising young stars The Greencards.

That’s because the common thread running through each of these powerhouse talents is the notion of breaking down the barriers that divide Western music into carefully delineated genres, and embracing that mysterious nexus where each of the aforementioned categories (and more) blur together to create what has – of late – been cleverly and succinctly termed “Americana.”

Whether it’s the shotgun wedding of Dylan’s hallucinogenic lyrical imagery and rotgut Chicago blues, Nelson’s peculiar (but most enjoyable) habit of recasting hoary C & W ballads as gossamer-light paeans to Charlie Christian’s jazz guitar fretwork, or the type of world-music fusion that can only arise when a trio of young bluegrass fanatics from abroad make a pilgrimage to the USA in the hopes of better understanding their passions’ source – it’s not too much of a stretch to say this particular roster may function as much as an invigorating history lesson on organic American pop music as it does a fun way for the whole family to spend a warm June evening.

This is the second year in a row that old friends (and in many ways, peers) Dylan and Nelson have joined forces to pack outdoor venues across the country, and after the tremendous response they received in 2004, it comes as no surprise that they’re back “on the road again.”

Over 150,000 people attended shows on that first outing (featuring opening act The Hot Club of Cowtown), which was subsequently named “Most Creative Tour Outing” by Pollstar Magazine, the concert industry leader.

More than just a financial and artistic success, it marked the first-ever successful and profitable musical tour designed exclusively for minor league ballparks such as our own Grayson Stadium. That’s due in no small part to the concept of gearing the gigs toward families (an acknowledgement that Bob and Willie’s respective fanbases range in age from pre-teens to octogenarians!). At $51.00, the ticket prices are a tad on the high side, but quite reasonable considering the double-whammy of legendary superstars involved, and – in a generous and thoughtful move – children twelve and under get in free when accompanied by a ticket-holding adult, which makes this a wonderful way to introduce a new generation to some of the country’s most treasured songwriters while they can still be seen in something resembling their prime.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that since Savannah rarely sees travelling roadshows of this magnitude take a pit stop in our neck of the woods, making this gig would be a no-brainer for most rock, country, blues, or bluegrass fans. However, just in case you were still on the fence, here are a few reasons to consider grabbing a ticket while there are still some to be had:

First of all, despite the fact that Willie plays here with some degree of regularity (he most recently sold out the Johnny Mercer Theatre this past February), outdoor shows are where he and his band are often said to shine (witness his massive annual July 4th Texas Picnic festival – still going strong after more than three decades).

Secondly, despite headlining over one hundred shows annually for the past sixteen years, Dylan has only played Savannah three times before – once on his big band “Alimony Tour” of 1978, once in 1991 (just after receiving his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award), and once in 1995 (during his oft-lamented “shiny shirt phase”).

And thirdly, anyone who knows anything about roots music will tell you that Austin, Texas is one of the most intense hotbeds of world-class talent to be found anywhere. So, it goes without saying that when The Greencards have already been named Best New Band at the 2004 Austin Music Awards and nominated for Best New Emerging Talent at the 2004 Americana Music Awards, they must be doing something right.

They’ve only been together since early 2003, but they’ve seen their DIY debut make it to the Top Five on the national Americana charts. Their second (and latest) LP, Weather and Water – on the prestigious DualTone label – is racking up raves worldwide for its unpretentious-but-slick take on acoustic folk and bluegrass, and bassist Carol Young’s vocals are constantly compared to those of the great Alison Krauss. Texas music legend Robert Earl Keen recently said they make the best bluegrass he's heard "in 20 years.”

That’s a heap of praise, especially considering the fact that none of the bandmembers are even from the United States (two are from Australia and one hails from England – hence the sly reference to their outsider status in the band’s name).

So that settles it, right?

You’re going?

Now you just need to make sure you know what you’re getting into.

Most people who go see Bob or Willie in concert these days walk away either elated or dejected, and believe it or not, which side of that particular fence you wind up on has much more to do with how much (or how little) you know in advance about the type of shows each of these headstrong artists are putting on, than whether or not they’re having an off night.

That’s because Bob and Willie are both internationally famous for doing pretty much exactly as they please (i.e., in Willie’s case, smoking pot on the White House lawn, and in Bob’s case, “selling out” by appearing in a Victoria’s Secret TV commercial for no apparent reason other than a fat check and a weekend in Milan with some scantily clad models).

That includes following their own intuition even when it ultimately misleads them, and doing whatever they wish with the melodies, arrangements and tempos of the beloved tunes contained in their illustrious back catalogs.

In other words, if you go to this show hoping to hear the kind of faithful recreations of each star’s biggest hits that one would rightly expect from most other artists of their stature who still play live (such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, George Jones, B.B. King, James Brown, etc...), you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Both Dylan and Nelson revel in deconstructing their works, as they’re infinitely more interested in keeping things fresh and relevant for themselves as performing artists than they are worrying about whether or not the crowds will be too didactic or unyielding to get with the program. They instead choose to trust their fans to come along for the ride.

If the audiences do allow themselves to enjoy the chance to witness tremendous talents pushing the boundaries of their own skills, they can usually pick up on musical riches that can only be revealed through periodic re-invention. That’s a trick that longtime chameleons like David Bowie and Elvis Costello have employed for decades to keep themselves, their albums and their shows from becoming stale, atrophied exercises in sheer nostalgia.

For, as Dylan himself once bluntly opined, “Nostalgia is death.”

Although it would be safe to say that Nelson is a restless spirit who’s bound to ramble through this open world – as his devotion to seemingly endless roadwork will attest – it must be noted that he’s much more likely to give the crowd what they want than Dylan (who rarely addresses the audience, and notoriously went for several years without saying much of anything on stage whatsoever besides the occasional, mumbled “thanks, everybody.”)

While his penchant for cranking out albums much faster than his record labels can effectively release and promote them is well-known in the industry, in concert, Nelson and his band (which he calls his “Family,” and which features his piano-playing sister and – at times – both his guitar playing and percussionist sons) seem happy to concentrate on such timeless classics as “Crazy,” (which he famously sold to Patsy Cline for little more than pocket change) “Whiskey River,” “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground," and his unofficial theme song “On The Road Again.”

Then again, he’s just as likely to throw a curveball like his early ‘90s non-hit “Still Is Still Moving To Me” (which sounds like it could just as easily have been a lost Dylan original), or the late, great Townes Van Zandt’s picture perfect outlaw ballad “Pancho and Lefty.”

Some members of his band – most notably guitar foil Jody Payne – have been at his side for over thirty years, and they can pretty much follow Willie wherever he feels like going, so perhaps Savannah will be treated to a couple of reggae tunes from Nelson’s long-rumored Rastafarian-inspired LP Countryman that’s finally set to be released in August after languishing in record label vaults for almost a decade (due to corporate turnover, as opposed to issues of quality). One thing’s for sure, however – you can expect plenty of medleys from Willie and Family, as he has so many hits to his name, that’s the only way he can cover all his bases in the time allowed.

Bob’s sets are another story entirely – but even with that said, it’s important to separate fact from fiction.

While diehard Dylanophiles may wax rhapsodic about how The Bard plays a completely different show each night, this is hardly the case. Truth be told, for the past couple of tours, Bob has been much more predictable than his reputation implies.

Like clockwork, his shows now run exactly fourteen songs (including a two-song encore), with around eight to nine tunes changing from night to night. That’s still a tremendous amount of variation (in comparison to most superstars whose setlists remain cast in stone for entire tours), but when one examines the pool of songs Dylan’s drawing from in 2005, it becomes clear that of late, the iconic artist has begun to circle his wagons.

Gone are the heady days of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when a revitalized (and rededicated) Dylan forced his road band to learn close to two hundred songs (both his own and unusual arrangements of others' material, some dating back to the Civil War). Gone, too are the days when Bob could be counted on to mischievously spring an unfamiliar song on his backing group in front of a paying crowd, or antagonistically insist on playing his guitar in different keys than previously agreed upon (forcing the humiliated and annoyed musicians to bend to his will or appear out of tune). Looking back, it’s hard to pine for those confrontational (and often infuriating) days of yore, but there was something to be said for the palpable sense of dynamic tension

which radiated from the stage back then.

In last year’s best-selling first volume of his proposed three-part memoirs

Chronicles, Dylan bragged (and rightfully so) of a series of concerts he gave in the late ‘80s wherein he prodded himself to perform dozens of different songs spanning almost thirty years of his canon “just to see if I could.” Such a phenomenal act of recall, focus and stamina is all but unthinkable at this point in his stage career, and yet, the (still) relatively unpredictable nature of his setlists, and his legendary proclivity for blowing his fans' minds from time to time by exhuming a gem long thought dead and buried (often for only one performance, only to let it slip back into the ground) keeps many loyalists in his audiences glued to every word, and coming back for more, tour after tour.

Case in point: During the last few shows of his 2003 British outing, Dylan and his band stunned the crowd by playing a note-perfect rendition of an

ultra-obscure – and notoriously wordy – screenplay-in-a-song chestnut from 1975’s Desire LP (“Romance In Durango”). It had literally been twenty-seven years since it had graced his live shows, and the finesse with which it was imparted betrayed hours of intense rehearsal on all the musicians’ parts. Yet, despite hitting this one out of the park, it has not been heard since, and most Dylan enthusiasts would not be surprised if it never was again.

So, what can one reasonably expect from Dylan’s portion of this revue?

Well, a smattering of well-known hits from the ‘60s and ‘70s, for one thing

(in the first few nights of this leg, he’s offered up a lilting acoustic rendition of his 1962 classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and barnstorming, hard rock arrangements of “Highway 61 Revisited,” and the standard closer, “All Along The Watchtower”), but no one could accuse Bob of pandering to the casual fan with anything even resembling an oldies show.

He’s now proudly featuring plenty of recent material – something he was loath to do until around ‘97 – such as “Cry A While,” and “High Water (for Charley Patton)” from Love And Theft, and the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” from the Wonder Boys soundtrack.

Plus, hardcore devotees who’ve stuck with his mercurial muse and decades of genre experiments are being rewarded with such underappreciated nuggets as Empire Burlesque’s “I’ll Remember You,” Street Legal’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and the sublime “Drifter’s Escape” off of John Wesley Harding.

His current road band is finally starting to come into their own as well. While the longtime rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier (Asleep At The Wheel, The Lounge Lizards) and drummer George Recile (Keith Richards, The Funky Meters) remains intact, most of the other players – including one former member of Nashville alt.country knockouts BR-549) have only been on board a few months.

The first leg of this tour – an indoor run from the West Coast to New York City featuring Merle Haggard & The Strangers in the spot now occupied by Willie’s band – found the group at times struggling to gel, but live recordings which have leaked from the first few ballpark gigs find them playing with a noticeably pronounced C & W swagger, and sounding more and more like the killer roadhouse bar band they seem primed to be with each passing gig.

It sounds like they’ve been practicing. w

The Bob Dylan Show hits Grayson Stadium Saturday, June 4th at 6:30 pm. For ticket info, call the box office at 351-9150, or try www.ticketmaster.com.


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Jim Reed

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