Summerfest Part 1: The Observer


images courtesy of Google

images courtesy of Google

Words by Brian Whitney

Wednesday night’s Marcus Amphitheater show featured a meeting of two music legends with very different legacies. The bar-friendly country rock of Willie Nelson stood in stark contrast to the mythological poetic rock of Bob Dylan, a contrast that was even reflected in the billing of the show (Willie Nelson and the Family vs. Bob Dylan and his band.) The men used differing approaches to the Big Rock Concert, but achieved similar results.

The septuagenarian Nelson opened the show, with his aforementioned Family Band that included his real life son Jacob playing maracas. Willie rolled through hit after hit (“On the Road Again”, “Always On My Mind”) , starting many of the songs simply by singing the first line and letting the band file in behind him. This seemingly ramshackle approach fit the vibe of the band pretty well (bassist Bee Spears spent much of the time between songs slugging from what appeared to be a bottle of Alize; it takes little effort to imagine what the tour bus atmosphere is like) and the part of the crowd that had spent most of the day drinking at Summerfest ate it up. Most notable among the revelers was a man who looked similar to Ric Ocasek only with long blonde hair, who danced violently through much of Willie’s set despite the fact that the rest of the audience was seated; every show with amphitheater-style seating has at least one lone, ridiculous dancer. At this point, Willie’s voice sounds kind of like Garrison Keillor’s speaking voice, but he has vowed to keep playing until his beloved guitar, Trigger, is unplayable. (I am not making this up.)

The headlining set of Bob Dylan was another matter entirely. Dylan’s been on what he refers to as a “Never-Ending Tour”, playing over 100 shows a year since 1988(!), though this was his first American show of the year. Dylan plays songs from throughout his storied career, but with the caveat that he plays them in the style of Bob Dylan, 2009, a 68 year old songwriter who appears to be fascinated with cowboy and Mexican culture. The 12 bar rock treatment worked quite well on some songs (“Highway 61 Revisited”, “Stuck Outside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”) and not so well on others (a barely recognizable “Desolation Row”.) It’s true that Dylan’s voice has faded in his old age; his younger voice was not unlike a thick, creamy mayonnaise, compared to the modern Dylan’s caustic oil and vinegar. The band covered the minor vocal weakness well, meshing and performing flawlessly in sync, to the point of wearing matching gray sport coats and black flat brimmed hats. All this being said, I don’t think a real Bob Dylan fan would go to a concert of his expecting to sing along to the hits, and at a point where others of his generation have lost relevance (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones) Dylan continues to push the envelope, and the musical world is a better place for it. It’s relatively easy to point to the “last great record” by many Sixties artists (go back to that last parentheses and see what you come up with,) but what would that answer be for Bob? He’s released three solid records in the last decade, and one truly great one, Time Out of Mind, back in 1997. The man is not a nostalgia act, and the show only reinforces this fact.

(Coming next week, Summerfest Part 2: The Performer.)


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3 Responses to “Summerfest Part 1: The Observer”

  1. kevin Says:

    neil young has lost relevance?

  2. Zeidler Says:

    sometimes i cant tell if the article is about music or a vocabulary lesson. Good stuff.

  3. bw Says:

    if you see neil’s recent turn towards extremely topical political material as relevant, that’s fine, but i doubt there are people really listening to “living with war”, “greendale”, or “fork in the road”. by my estimation the last neil album that really counts is freedom, which takes us back to….1989.

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