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JULY 12, 2009   

Dylan & friends

View toward the stage at Dylan concertWhen the line-up includes Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp warming up for Bob Dylan, you expect a pretty good concert. When you're sitting in the sunshine when the music starts promptly at 5:30 as advertised, and standing under a dark blue sky on a warm July night when it ends at 11, you've definitely gotten your money's worth.

We were at Classic Field in Eastlake, just east of Cleveland. This small minor league baseball stadium that seats about 7000 was a pleasant spot for a late-afternoon concert. We had no trouble finding seats with a good view of the stage, although it was far away. For Dylan's performance we went down and stood near the stage, as you see in the picture.

As is typical these days you couldn't bring food into the place, and the prices were higher than at Progressive Field where I saw the Indians play last week. I mean, $8 for a Sam Adams is a joke when $6.75 will get you a Great Lakes at the Indians game. The Italian Sausage sandwich was both smaller and more expensive than last week's too.

As is also typical, posted signs said "No backpacks, no camera, no umbrellas, and so on. Law-abiding citizen that I am, I left my camera at home, something I later came to regret. More about that below.

The music

I'm not a fan of Willie Nelson, so had no expectations. He played for less than an hour and was enjoyable if not memorable.

John Mellencamp started with a hard-rockin' version of Pink Houses that boosted the energy level 1000%. Later songs were tinged with sadness and what seems to be his growing awareness of getting old. One song he introduced as being "for our generation." It was something along the lines of "it takes courage to grow old."

He didn't sing Jack and Diane but did other crowd-pleasers. If you like his music, this was a good show. I enjoyed it and was curious to see if Dylan could keep the energy at the same level.

Silly me. From the first chord of the first song the answer was clear: Dylan and the band were going to take no prisoners. Start to finish (about an hour and a half) this was Dylan the rocker, not the folksinger. But he hasn't "reinvented" himself, as is sometimes said. He's recognizably the same Dylan who shocked everyone in 1965 with his electric blues/rock set at the Newport Jazz Festival. Only more so.

I wish you could hear the old stand-bys like Highway 61 Revisited, Times are Strange, and the final All Along the Watchtower. They were dark, throbbing and—who'd a thunk it?—danceable. But as I mentioned, my camera was at home. I tried the Voice Recorder on my iPhone but the sound is so distorted that it's unlistenable. The speakers on both sides of the stage were making the plastic bottle in my hand vibrate, which doesn't make for a good quality sound recording.

I found a couple of recent recordings on YouTube that will give you a sense of how Dylan has reworked the songs, but the overall feel is very different. The videos sound lighter and more cheery than what we heard. Last night Dylan was dark, raw and powerful. I loved it.

Highway 61 Revisited

All Along the Watchtower

I've always loved this song—Jimi Hendrix did a killer version of it—and thought it was a perfect way to end the evening.

It's pretty obvious that Dylan's emphasis here is the sound, the beat, not the lyrics. The result is definitely not the All Along the Watchtower of the John Wesley Harding album.

The difference between Dylan and Mellencamp couldn't be more dramatic. Mellencamp's new material may sound different, but the old faves are pretty much the same as you remember them. With Dylan, identifying any song from its first few notes can be a challenge. You'll get it in a minute, but probably find that your old friend has had a complete makeover.

I know this frustrates some people who love particular versions of Dylan's songs. The changes he makes aren't always for the better. But I imagine this is how he can play a song for the 10,000th time and still put some energy into it. It's so much better than the sad, pathetic Motown groups you see on public television during fund-raising weeks, trying to recreate themselves, their look and their sound from forty years ago.

Thanks, Bob, for not going down this road, and for shaking the rust off instead.

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