This month we'll be concentrating entirely on the Bob 'n' Willie August / September tour of minor baseball parks. It was quickly dubbed the "Field Of Dreams" tour by the media, though its official title was the less appropriate and somewhat immodest "Bob Dylan Show".
Overall, it was very well received, though it has to be said that Nelson's friendly Greatest Hits set quite often pleased the critics more than Bob's "take no prisoners" blitzkrieg approach, and, if reports of large portions of the crowd leaving after Nelson's set are to be believed, then it seems as though the audience quite often agreed with them.
Anyway, just before we get into that, there's the small matter of Bob's warm-up gig (is he ever off the road long enough to actually cool down, I wonder?) at Poughkeepsie's 750-capacity The Chance, where, by all accounts, his close proximity to a small and lively audience brought out one of his best performances of the year. John W. Barry of the Poughkeepsie Journal agreed that this was top-notch Dylan; "...With the swagger of a cranky old neighbour, peering through the squinting eyes of a desert shaman, sometimes looking scarier than Vincent Price, Dylan delivered." Barry reckons the highlight of the night was Highway 61 Revisited, closely followed by It Ain't Me Babe. "Neither," he informs us, "was played as originally recorded." No?!! Really??!
The Bob Dylan show kicked off a few days later in Cooperstown, at Doubleday Field, where R. Patrick Corbett of the Utica Observer-Dispatch spent much of his review discussing the audience and what they had to say ("I'm here for Willie!", "Bob's the man!", etc. etc.), but he does manage to reveal that “Willie Nelson got them in gear and Bob Dylan drove them to the finish line." So that's okay, then.
Mark Boshnack of The Daily Star also reported on the show, but again devoted most of his article to fan comments and most of them were about Willie Nelson. Belinda Mott, 43, told Boshnack that "I like how 'up' Willie is." Oh dear; you could have phrased that a bit better, Belinda.
Michael Eck (what a pity his first name wasn't Bye - geddit? Geddit?) of Albany's Times Union reckoned that Dylan's keyboards were too low in the mix, but that this was not a bad thing "given his instrumental abilities". Even so, he enjoyed his set, and the band, too, who are "full of fine hats, sharp suits and guitar firepower", and concluded that the show hit a home run.
Tim Wiles of coopercrier.com had a thoroughly good time at the show, citing his favourite performance as I Don't Believe You, and calling Dylan's vocals "stylish and clear". Indeed, he felt that Bob was on far better form than at some recent shows; "...as a veteran of a couple dozen Dylan shows, I was impressed with the energy level Dylan brought to the performance, and I have never seen the band rock harder...Throughout his long career, there have been times when he was not performing at his peak potential, but this was a virtuoso performance." Oh yes, and Bob has introduced another "joke" to his repertoire; "Speaking of baseball, Stu got a bat for his wife. It was the worst trade he ever made." Come back, Mike Yarwood; all is forgiven. No; actually stay away, Mike, nothing is, in actual fact, forgiven (note to overseas readers; Mike Yarwood was...er...Well, he was crap. That's all you need to know, really). "The man of a thousand voices!" Yes, and all of them Mike Yarwood's).
And on that bombshell, onto Brockton, where an unknown reporter from countrystandardtime.com enjoyed both Bob and Willie, claiming that, despite their advancing years, neither are any the worse for wear and, in Dylan's case, is even getting better. Whilst he concurs that Bob's voice is a tad on the rough side these days, he insists that he sang "with a passion all night" and that his show "benefits greatly from a stellar band". At the end of his set, Dylan managed to thank the audience and, despite his lack of audience rapport, left the safety of his keyboards to finally stand centre-stage, where "he seemed to have a glow about him.... (and) an inward smile."
Steve Morse of The Boston Globe also enjoyed Bob at Brockton, suggesting that choosing the keyboard as his preferred choice of weapon onstage nowadays may not be such a bad thing; "....he was able to focus more on his vocals with surprising nuance given his gravelly, time-ravaged pipes. And when he did the popular Mr. Tambourine Man as an encore, all was indeed well in Brockton."
A few days into the tour and John W. Barry of the Poughkeepsie Journal ran an article on one of the two chefs that will cook for Bob and Willie during the entire six week run. Kris O'Connor, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America has already been on the road with the recent Simon And Garfunkel "Old Friends" reunion tour and now she and her crew will serve 50 people for lunch and 80 or 90 for lunch and dinner on every stop of the "Bob Dylan Show". What Bob will finally sit down to eat is largely dictated by what area the show is playing in, so her "runner" may select big sides of brisket for barbecues in Texas, bratwurst in Milwaukee, crab cakes in Maryland and farm goat cheese in Dutchess County. "What about the vegetable, Mr. Dylan?" "No, I don't think the drummer's hungry, thanks." (sorry, old joke but I couldn't resist it). Despite working a 15 hour-day, she reckons it never gets boring, especially near show time with the soundcheck taking place and people running here there and everywhere. "And," she concludes,"....with the feedback from the band and crew, it's not like we were doing a thankless job."
Daniel Neman of the Richmond Times-Dispatch found a very impressive Bob Dylan performing at Richmond's The Diamond. Though he didn't consider his voice to be at its best (one comedian in the audience, while discussing the band, commented; "Think how good they'd be with someone who can actually sing."), he was pleased to get a set list that included "a turbocharged" Highway 61 Revisited, "a stunning" Summer Days and "the brilliant" Things Have Changed. Neman was equally impressed with a show that again revamped the oldies so that It Ain't Me Babe and Blind Willie McTell were "virtually unrecognisable". On the other hand, he found Nelson's attempt at "making his old songs sound like new songs" to be less successful and ultimately disappointing.
Johnathan Hunley and Wayne Countryman both attended Richmond for Fredericksberg.com and found Dylan to be the better of the two star attractions, even his voice was okay; "...often chided for sounding mush-mouthed, his pronunciation got better as the night went on." And while Nelson's set was pronounced "fun", Dylan was the man who got the feet tapping; "...old Bob showed he could swing, too, with the jazzy Summer Days. A stadium garbage man even succumbed to this song's groove, and danced while he unfolded a black plastic bag near us." There you are; rock 'n' roll - it recognises no boundaries.
At Ripken Stadium, Geoffrey Himes of the Baltimore City Paper was prepared for the worst when Dylan opened up with an all but unintelligible Drifter's Escape. His voice was a "raspy croak" and a torrential summer rainstorm was busily soaking an audience still drying off from an earlier drenching. The omens were not good, then, when Willie and his sons joined Bob for the first duet of the tour on Milk Cow Blues. "Willie and I go way back," Bob announced, "There's nothing I wouldn't do for him and there's nothing he wouldn't do for me." And, indeed, the duet worked well and encouraged Dylan to step it up a gear or two, and from there on the concert improved dramatically. Full marks too, according to Himes, to his band "who coaxed their boss into better and better singing." By the time the obligatory encores came around, Dylan was in such good spirits that he even answered a request for A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. "But," Himes concludes, "He seemed to grin slyly as the rain fell even harder during the last verse."
Halfway through the tour, and Jerry Mickleson, co-owner of Chicago's Jam Productions (who put the tour together) was waxing lyrical about its success to John Sinkevics of The Grand Rapids Press. "It's as great as it could have been," he gushed, "We're having a totally incredible time." He points out that several of the dates have sold out, while other acts are finding it difficult to shift tickets this summer, and that part of the success is down to the family audience that they deliberately courted for this tour; "It's like the crowds you see at an actual ballgame. It's different than an audience you might see at a nightclub on a Thursday night." He reveals that the genesis of the tour began back in 1997 when Dylan played a sold-out concert at a ballpark in St. Paul. When Jam Productions proposed a more extensive tour, Dylan jumped at the chance; "(He) loved the idea, because Bob likes to play alternative venues. He doesn't like to play the same venues." And, while he insists that Nelson's voice is as good, if not better, than ever ("if anything, it's more refined and deep and expressive"), what about Bob's? "His band is incredible." Yes, but what about his voice? "They look really really snazzy." Enough about his band's stage clothes already! Tell us what you think of Bob's singing voice! "I think his singing and performing are fantastic." Thank you, is that it? "He's got a lot of style."
Onto Kentucky's Applebee's Park, where kentucky.com's Walter Tunis was especially impressed with our Mr. Dylan; "...Best of all, the often detached Dylan looked to be having a ball as he flashed huge grins to his band mates during the bluesy rumble of Honest With Me. Such a moment hardly demystified Dylan. But it certainly presented him as an involved, invigorated and, yes, very human rock 'n' roll voice."
The Indianapolis Star's David Lindquist journeyed to South Bend's Coveleski Stadium, where he found Bob's "tolerate-it-or-leave-it" voice to be more tolerable than at some previous visits. Wisely recognising that Nelson's call-and-response duet on I Shall Be Released was a safer bet than trying to harmonise with Dylan, Lindquist found that things got even better as his set wore on; "...When relative live rarity Lay Lady Lay and reliable sonic tornado Highway 61 Revisited arrived later, Dylan enunciated as if he truly cared."
At the same show, Andrew S. Hughes of the South Bend Tribune also enjoyed Bob's set, though he was less convinced by what remains of The Voice in 2004; "...(it was) rough and more gravelly than ever, but it sounded strong, and he sang with conviction. He did, however, slur at times, making it difficult to understand every line he sang." I guess that's why we have the albums, no?
At Michigan's Fifth Third Ballpark, John Sinkevics of The Grand Rapids Press devoted most of his review to Bob's performance, though not everything on or off the stage impressed him. For starters, he reports that many fans were disgruntled that Dylan's management didn't allow them to bring binoculars into the venue (I can understand how they felt; it's one thing to try to ban cameras, but to ban binoculars?? Just how paranoid is the silly old fart getting?). Also, he felt that Bob's "brittle rasp" was less effective on the ballads and the duet with Nelson. However, during the rockers - and especially the encores - Bob was on form; "...when the 63 year-old singer and his band virtually sizzled on an encore comprised of the razor-sharp Like A Rolling Stone and All Along The Watchtower, it was abundantly clear that Fifth Third Ballpark would never be the same again."
The Asheville Citizen-Times' Jill Ingram went along to Asheville's Sevierville Stadium primarily to see Willie Nelson, because catching his live show is one of the many things she's planned to do before she dies (along with visiting New Mexico and learning how to make sushi). Consequently, she thought he was a fantastic performer who knows how to give an audience what they want, so much so that one female member even threw her bra up onstage (Mr. Nelson is 71, but looks at least ten years older, remember). In contrast, Dylan turned up and gave the audience what he wanted, and Ingram was less than impressed; "... (Dylan) didn't have to duck bras. No one threw any. It's a sad standoff when "classic" performers are bored with their old material and their fans are bored with the new. I respect an artist who continues to develop, but in Dylan's case I just don't want to be around to hear it. Dylan was into his third song of the encore when I momentarily panicked; frightened it was actually a second set." So, not a fan, then.
Phil Luciano of the Peoria Journal Star went along to Peoria's O'Brien Field and found a Bob Dylan as near to the top of his game as he's likely to get these days; "....It's debatable which roar ripped a more menacing rumble.....the sky's relentless thunder cracks or Bob Dylan's rattling growl." While Luciano recognises that Dylan's advancing years and constant touring have rendered his voice more "distinctive" than ever ("...His nasally whine has taken on a phlegmy raggedness. Once, during Tangled Up In Blue, as he stretched and trilled "blue" during the refrain, he sounded as though he were hacking up a fur ball"), he realises that it's really not that important; "...Dylan's vocal gift isn't so much his singing, but the cadence and the mood he projects with his tremulous pipes." Despite a fair smattering of the more familiar numbers, Luciano reckons that Dylan relied on his "non-radio numbers" such as Seeing The Real You At Last, Ballad Of A Thin Man and "Dan McCafferty's Boots Of Spanish Leather." What?? Dan who? And up until then he was doing so well.
For his review of the Mayo Field show in Rochester, Jon Bream of the Star Tribune reckoned that Bob was better than on his previous visits in 1994 and 1989, but concentrated more on the fan reaction, which was pretty positive. The only real complaints were for the lack of decent souvenirs and the poor food, as well as a half-hour wait for the toilets. One attendee, Tom Frechette, complained about the behaviour of portions of the audience, who, he thinks, were a little drunk. He complained that it was all "too intense" for his 10 year-old daughter and then said that he wasn't a fan of either Dylan or Nelson. Er....so what the fuck was he doing there, then?
At Des Moines' Principal Park, The Des Moines Register's Kyle Munson thought that both headliners were impressive, if not exceptional ("...what you might call an in-the-park home run. Neither icon turned in the sort of peak performance to clear the fences, but they rounded the bases and scored.") and that Dylan's opening numbers were a bit ragged, but he soon got into his stride. He reckons that Highway 61 Revisited might have been the best song, but that Dylan seemed to focus more on the Love And Theft material. He enjoyed the duet on the "obscure" Heartland and the encores, not to mention Bob's entrance onto the stage; "...Aaron Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man heralded Dylan's arrival - a nice touch of Olympic pomp for the Zeus of rock." In conclusion, Munson reckons that The Bob Dylan Show is ready to upgrade to the Major League ballparks next summer, especially if they could get Merle Haggard and Neil Young in tow and deliver a real "old-fogey country-rock extravaganza". Nice idea; the legend-tickers would be able to cross four names off their list at a single stroke.
Staying with Des Moines, Jason Noble of the Iowa State Daily guessed that most of the audience were there to see Dylan, but he initially found the ballpark to be an uncomfortable setting for Bob; "...He seemed out of place - a diminutive poet, pencil-thin and apparently on the slow, shrinking descent into old age, playing on a field built for young, strong athletes." However, Noble later concluded that the venue - with its open-air feel of family atmosphere - worked well for both Bob and Willie. And though his voice was the "sandpapered, mumbled mess" that Noble had feared, amazingly, he pulled off the impossible and made it work; "...Whether it was Dylan's mystique as the father of meaningful popular music or just the inherent bond between his voice and his songs, the gravel voice worked, and to great effect." So much so, that Noble insists that, on this night, Dylan reclaimed All Along The Watchtower back from the ghost of Jimi Hendrix and "under a sky of low, cobblestone clouds backlit by a not-quite-full moon, the Walt Whitman of our time illuminated the night."
At the Madison Duck Pond, madison.com's Rob Thomas witnessed a Bob Dylan "galvanised" by his decision to switch to keyboards, and, while his stage attire might have suggested that he was there to play his Nashville Skyline album, he and his band rocked. "He leaned into the microphone, knees bent as he sang, bobbing along to the beat to songs like the opening Drifter's Escape. During the ferocious rocker Honest With Me, he even left the keyboards to wander into the middle of his four-piece band, pointing to each member in a manner that, dare I say it, approached the definition of dancing."
At Lincon's Hymarket Park, Kim Roberts-Gudeman of the Omaha World-Herald found Bob's voice to be unintelligible, but concluded that the audience didn't really care. As one crowd member, Carol Ott Schacht, put it; "It might be one of the last chances to see these guys play."
The Wichita Eagle's Bud Norman again found a Dylan ready to rock 'n' roll in Country 'n' Western clothes at Wichita's Lawrence-Durmont Stadium. Several in the audience had also attended the previous night's Crosby, Stills And Nash show, and one, Teri Mott, admitted being "as tired as hell", before adding, "What a line-up. You can't miss this."
And finally, Cyril? And finally, Esther, we head off to Kansas City's Community America Ballpark, where jambase.com's Reanna Feinberg decided that Dylan "may be the only man alive who can draw people to line up and empty their pockets to hear him sing indistinguishable sentences....I could only pick out a few words, even from the songs I knew, but I was rather close to the stage where words can be chiselled and digested in speakers and - it doesn't matter, it's Bob Dylan." Whatever, she reckons that his fans have been coming to see him for forty years and that they'll be back to see him next time, too. As will she.
And that's how "The Bob Dylan Show" shaped up media-wise. Next month, Chronicles - the greatest book since The Bible or a case of "nothing was delivered"? We'll see, won't we?
THANKS TO: EXPECTING RAIN AND THE ISIS WEBSITE
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