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Dylan, Mellencamp, Nelson score on minor league tour

McCoy Stadium, Pawtucket, R.I., July 22, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Bob Dylan may remain an enigma even to his fans. Who knows what you'll get and in what form in concert. Bob does what Bob wants, of course.

While Dylan has adopted a more bluesy tone in recent years, which fits his croaky voice way better than other styles these days, he changed it up during the 90-minute, 14-song show during his minor league baseball stadium tour with compadres John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson.

Bluesy element surfaced at times, but this was a concert where the poppier side of Dylan came to the fore. In the hands of another vocalist, that would have been even readily apparent. The sextet behind him tended to play many songs at a mid-tempo pace, keeping an eye on Dylan to follow his lead.

Dylan alternated between guitar, where he stayed for the first four songs including a very very reworked It Ain't Me, Babe to keyboards for such songs as The Levee's Gonna Break, Masters of War and It's Alright Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding).

Dylan, whose vocals were clear for good chunks of the night, spiked songs with many good runs on guitar. On keyboards, he seemed to find a groove, which he liked and would play for a while. He did not rush the songs - that was for sure. But that was a good thing because in song after song, Dylan and his band tended to find a meaty groove and mine it to good effect.

However, the band, including Tony Garnier on bass, Stu Kimball on rhythm guitar, Donnie Herron on mandolin and pedal Steel, George Recile on drums and Denny Freeman on lead guitar, tended to be inert for stretches of time as well. There certainly was very little physical movement on stage.

The mid-tempo sound - ultimately, there was a bit too much of that - changed a lot during the encore of Like a Rolling Stone, Jolene (unfortunately the only song he played off his recent number one selling disc "Together Through Life") and the closing All Along the Watchtower. The energy was palpable up there and extended to the crowd. Dylan provided a fine closing to an uncertain night.

Mellencamp is feeling real comfy in his roll as a thinking rock and roller. Just as he did last summer in coming to Boston, Mellencamp displayed a superb band with a lot of very good songs.

He started white hot from the opening Pink Houses, with its "Ain't That America" refrain. Mellencamp always has benefitted from his backing mates being of very high quality, and this aggregation was no different. The key players were lead guitarist Andrew York, accordionist/keyboardist Troye Kinnett and fiddler Miriam Sturm.∫

Mellencamp kept the pace going with songs Paper & Fire, the soulful My Aeroplane and the slower, but catchy chestnut Check It Out.

Mellencamp has a bit of a raspy voice, but he put it to good use in a set that never flagged at all. He trotted out a new song, recorded last week in Savannah, Ga. at a First Baptist Church, Saved Some Time to Dream. The message seemed a bit simple with the tag line "because your dream might save us all," but hey in these times, the sentiment was welcome. Mellencamp appeared a bit emotional after the song concluded, stepping away from the mic for a few seconds and looking down.

Mellencamp delivered a sincerest musically and vocally, particularly with If I Die Sudden and the closing The Authority Song. "We started this back in 1975, and we wanted to be a garage band, and here we are...still playing," said Mellencamp. He said he wrote the song, which was "a little juvenile in its presentation (but) I feel the way today as I did when I wrote this song." Mellencamp and band rocked well, showing he still has the rebel in him.

Willie Nelson was his typical self during his hour-long set. The long-braided redhead started with a short version of Whiskey River. He would follow that with such standards as Funny How Time Slips Away, Crazy, The Night Life, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, I've Been to Georgia (On a Fast Train), Georgia, Mammas Don't Let Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys and On the Road Again among others.

The good thing was that Nelson's voice has not weathered at all in recent years. He sounded as vibrant as ever. The same could be said for his guitar playing. He picked away at his ancient acoustic with the hole in it, creating short, but sturdy runs here and there. Mickey Raphael filled the songs time and again with short harmonica lines as well.

Nelson did not say a lot to the crowd, but he didn't much need to. The people loved the songs and Willie. He occasionally would specifically point to people in the audience near the stage and connected easily with the crowd.

However, aside from a scant few songs, Nelson has fallen victim to playing the same songs over and over and over again in concert. Given that he is an incredibly prolific musician with CDs coming out regularly, it would be great to hear him push those far more instead of only playing what he tends to play ever time out.

New York-based band The Wi-yos opened playing a half hour of an invigorating set of western swing, vaudeville style, jug band and more. Doubtlessly unknown to most everyone in the crowd, the group acquitted themselves quite well. They have an old time look about them. Lead singer Michael Farkas does a good job and also plays a decked out washboard with bells and whistles that was cute, albeit almost too much.

It would have been nice to hear them do a few more of their own songs, especially since they just released a new CD, but The Wi-yos did a good job considering what they were up against with the acts that followed.