August 09, 2004

Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, Yale Field, Aug. 7, 2004

I'm very energized by older artists who still rock. While some middle-aged musicians have turned into their own tribute bands, the ones that have remained relevant are good to see, and I've rediscovered a love for live music in my middle age. I still tend to listen to the same types of music I grew up on, and while my taste has evolved somewhat, there are still some things I've never grown to like. Country, for example. There was a time I wouldn't have been caught dead at a Willie Nelson concert. But Willie's touring with Bob Dylan this summer, and Dylan was an old-guy must-see, and since the tour was coming right here to New Haven, we had no choice but to go.

Yale Field turned out to be a pretty nice venue, and the uncharacteristic August weather was delightfully cool and dry. Later on the stars would shine down on our vantage point at the front of the stage.

The show was opened by the Hot Club of Cowtown, who bill themselves as a country swing band. They were really good, and got the crowd foot-tapping. I like swing, and damn, these guys were good. I'm going to pick up one of their CDs. So score one for the country folks.

Willie Nelson was up next. In spite of the fact that this isn't the kind of stuff I normally listen to, I'm not unaware of his prominence in American music, and I'm pretty familiar with a lot of his better-known stuff. His stage presence belies his age (70 or so as of this writing), and he comes across as a man who loves what he does and loves his audience. In fact, audience rapport is something he's very good at, as he spent a good deal of his time acknowledging his fans with waves and smiles and tossing the occasional bandana into the crowd. He played a bunch of stuff I knew, some stuff that I didn't, and a few of what I guess might be called country standards. He was in good voice. I seem to be drawn to singers who have idiosyncratic voices, and Willie sure fits the bill with his instantly recognizable, slightly warbly tenor. I really liked listening to him. There was something about the combination of his music, his obvious love for what he does and his affection for the crowd that just really got to me. I am now an official Willie Nelson fan, and I'm about to do the unthinkable. I'm going to buy a CD or two. Score two for country.

After Willie's set was over, the stage crew spent some time setting up for Dylan, who eventually took the stage to a recording of Copeland's Rodeo. Dylan and his band were dressed like Western dandies, gamblers perhaps, or gunslingers. He opened with Maggie's Farm (the 15-song setlist can be found here), and it was here that I realized that this was not the Bob Dylan of my youth (or his either, I suppose). I listened to a lot of Dylan when I was in high school and college. It was the era of acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica Dylan. The rearrangements made the music seem completely new in spite of the familiarity of the lyrics -- I found it impossible to sing along in my head or silently mouth the lyrics, as I'm prone to do at concerts. This was probably a good thing, because it gave me a chance to really listen to Dylan's voice, which was quite good that evening, and to the band, which was great. Dylan, secure in his position as cultural icon, gave the band plenty of opportunity to shine, and there was some excellent guitar work on display to complement Dylan's keyboards and harmonica.

As far as rapport goes, he couldn't be any more different from Willie Nelson than night is from day. The only time he spoke to the audience was to introduce the band, and he accepted the crowd's accolades with a stony face. He put a lot of work into the performance, but as my son said the next day, you definitely came away with the feeling that he was performing more for his own satisfaction than anyone else's. He closed the show with a three-song encore that included
Mr. Tambourine Man, Like A Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower and I would happily have listened to him play for another hour. His sourpuss demeanor notwithstanding, the man rocks.

Given the quantity and the quality of the music, the tickets were reasonable at forty bucks apiece, and the weather was delightful. We got to enjoy the show from the front of the stage, and I got to hear some really great music from my favorite vantage point, husband on one side and son on the other. By keeping my ears and my mind open, I came to a newfound appreciation for some music that I might not otherwise have heard. At the very end of the night, just as Dylan's set was drawing to a close, we got hassled by a very obnoxious young couple who were a walking advertisement for why alcohol shouldn't be sold at concert venues, but apart from that the crowd was pretty mellow and a good time was had by all.

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