Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson

What does it mean to see Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson together in a minor league ballpark in Sauget, Illinois, a town just across the river that is best known to us St. Louisians as the site of industrial factories and strip clubs? Somehow or another, there’s something about America being said, but I’m not sure what it is.

I know that Dylan and Willie were looking to get at the all-American small town world by announcing a tour of minor league ballparks. I know that GMC Stadium is a cool little place to see a baseball game, even if the players are several notches below terrific. Do you have any idea how many professional players are above the guys who wind up playing for a team like the Gateway Grizzlies?

But Sauget isn’t an All-American small town where there are Fourth of July parades and sandlot ballplayers and little white dogs playing with girls in cotton dresses. Frank Capra never made a movie about Sauget. The town’s population is something less than 500, unless they were kidding on the sign we saw.

After the concert, we met at the Liquor and Lottery store on the parking lot in front of the strip clubs, and tried to use the restroom. At midnight, there were nothing but sad old guys watching multiple TV screens of horse races, pouring over forms, hoping the next race would be the one that would restore their dreams of success.

And, now that I think of it, that’s kind of a metaphor for going out and catching a Bob Dylan show any time in the last 20 years. The guy wrote some of the most amazing songs in the history of the world, and accessed some level of performance magic that compare to the thrill of winning a large bet on a race, if you could stretch that winning streak over a number of years. But, nowadays, you’re as likely to tear up your ticket in disgust as you are to feel that adrenalin rush in the pit of your stomach that makes you know things are going your way.

Not last night, though. Dylan was as good as I’ve ever seen him, except probably that time in 1988 at the Muny Opera when G.E. Smith was in the band. Oh, his voice is a barely melodic croak these days, though he’s doing amazingly intriguing things with his phrasing. But, he leads an incredibly tight band of mostly unknown guys all of whom were willing to wear identical black and white button-down shirts. Dylan plays the piano these days, but unlike last year, when I saw him at the Pageant, he wasn’t insisting on mixing his instrument up above everybody else’s, and he didn’t seem to be pounding out Monk-on-acid discordant clusters every time you turned around. Instead, he let his two excellent guitarists and the fiddle/steel guitar player hog all the spotlight, leaving Dylan to blow some trade-mark harmonica now and again.

The songs all exist in relationship to the recordings. He mixed classics like “Positively 4th Street” and “Stuck Inside of Memphis” with more recent material from albums like “Love and Death.” Usually, it was possible to recognize the songs before he started singing, just from the familiar chords, even if the rhythms were drastically different. Then, he would sing, and you couldn’t often understand what he was singing, but luckily you know the songs to some degree, and you could tell he was manipulating the stress of words and syllables in ways that prevented anybody from singing along, but which was pretty cool, anyway. And, it felt like watching a legendary horse come back on an easier track, but winning over a pretty competitive bunch of other horses.

Speaking of legends, I was in awe just standing a 150 feet or so away from Willie Nelson, whose ramshackle magnificence kept me happy for an hour and a half or so. Man, all those songs strung together, all those amazing one-of-a-kind guitar solos and hammering rhythms, and that voice and that phrasing! Like Dylan, and the late Ray Charles, for that matter, Nelson is an American master, a person who absorbed all the strains of American popular music of the first half of the last century – blues, country, gospel, folk, and pop – and turned it into an expression which manages to be simultaneously individual and universal. Nelson is not mercurial, like Dylan. You know what you will get from him, though sometimes you get him going through the motions, and other times, like last night, you get him absorbed in the adoration of the crowd, and desiring to give them something back to deserve their love.

I was wary, but I was out there on that field, surrounded by friends, drinking fucking Budweiser, of all the crappy beers in the world, albeit something that seemed appropriate for the occasion, looking at the stars in the sky, and feeling that this was just about as good as life in this country could get. I mean, obviously, it didn’t solve the nation’s problems, but it was emblematic of the ways in which we can survive. If you can’t learn anything about surviving from Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan playing great music after all these years, well, you can’t learn nothin’.


Anonymous steve said...

Good review of Bob & Willie. This was my third time seeing Dylan, and I only came away unimpressed the first time, in the mid-90's. I saw him shortly after Time Out of Mind came out and thought he was really on and energized. The Sauget show had much of the same energy - the harmonica solo on "If You See Her, Say Hello" was some of the best Dylan harp I've ever heard, live or on record. Hwy. 61, Summer Days, and the pedal steel on Like A Rolling Stone were the other highlights for me. Dylan's voice was definitely an issue for a lot of the crowd, based on comments I heard from people around me. I think folks were expecting a Bob and Willie duet, too, which they've apparently done at some other dates. It might have been magic or a trainwreck, but I would've like to have seen it. Willie's set was great, but it couldn't quite live up to my experience of seeing him for the first time in Austin, where he played a long set in front of a mix of alt-country and hardcore country types at SXSW a few years ago.

8:07 AM  
Blogger R2K said...

:) I fear that bob dylan has passed his prime.

His voice just didnt mature, it really fell apart, and he seems to like it better which doesnt help.

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