Bob Dylan + Willie Nelson + John Mellencamp: 28 July 2009 – Durham, NC

Willie Nelson

Who would deny the appeal of the Willie Nelson/John Mellencamp/Bob Dylan ballpark tour, even after we agree that Mellencamp doesn’t belong with such a distinguished duo? In a perfect world, this weathered-Americana hot dog might have tasted better with John Prine or Lyle Lovett as the relish, but Mellencamp has hits, and fans with money to spend, so his place on the bill shouldn’t be taken for granted. Besides, any summer evening spent at a minor league baseball stadium is bliss: small shock then, that with the twang of steel guitar and kick of bass drum substituting in for the crack of ball on bat and the thump of fist on glove, the night of July 28 at the Durham Bulls Baseball Park in Durham, North Carolina, modeled a particularly American flavor of utopia.

Willie Nelson, emblem of outlaw ideals, marijuana consumption, and tax evasion, lead off. Donned in a sleeveless Dylan tour t-shirt, baseball cap, and black jeans, Nelson epitomized the hippie grandfather everyone wishes they had. He was appropriately friendly as well: waving, grinning, and throwing bandanna after bandanna into the crowd as if he were trying to populate Willie Nelson reliquaries in living rooms all over North Carolina. The six-piece band backing Nelson was relaxed and on-point, shuffling amiably from Texas swing to country blues, and the setlist was a crowd-pleaser from start to finish, filled with Nelson classics like “Whiskey River”, “Crazy”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”.

Judging from Tuesday’s performance, Nelson’s oaky, fervent baritone has barely aged a day, and as his own lead guitarist he gave his trusty Martin guitar, nicknamed “Trigger”, a strenuous workout, soloing on nearly every song. The legendary red-headed stranger traipsed across his voluminous catalog with palpable joy, as if this weren’t the millionth time he’s played “On the Road Again”. With his freely swinging arm flab, toothy grins, unconcerned fashion sense, and boundless energy, Nelson presented a paragon of seniorhood, which every baby boomer in a convertible examining his faintly receding hairline would do well to emulate.

Maybe John Mellencamp has been watching Nelson closely on this tour, but so far it’s had little effect. The Indianan that used to go by the name Cougar appears to be in the throes of a mid-life crisis. He entered the center-field stage in Durham with a band most of whom seemed half his age. His fist-pumps and jump-kicks were less than lithe. And maybe it’s cruel to harp on a rock-and-roller’s appearance, but after seeing Nelson, who very obviously did not give a fuck about how hip he looked, the fact that Mellencamp’s hair was dyed an unnatural shade of chocolate brown and that he was wearing an ill-fitting outfit ripped from the latest Gap catalogue just screamed “I really want to be country-rock’s Dick Clark”. The folk-influenced, newer numbers Mellencamp played, like “If I Die Sudden” and “Don’t Need this Body”, off his 2008 album Life Death Love and Freedom, confirmed that the singer-songwriter is going through a spooked-by-mortality phase, even if the output lacks for profundity. “All I got left is a head full of memories / And a thought of my upcoming death” is a representative, not-quite-soul-stirring lyric.

But Mellencamp was at least like Nelson in that he realized what the people came to hear. After opening with “Pink Houses”, Mellencamp served up such other denim-bound ’80s MTV anthems as “Hurts So Good”, “Paper in Fire”, and “Crumblin’ Down”. The group of youngsters reproduced the sound of the originals with all the expertise of PhD candidates in FM radio, and Mellencamp’s voice, which has always been his greatest asset, was at its cigarette-cooked, laid-off-Midwesterner best. John Mellencamp may forever be a low-rent Springsteen, a shallow populist who shills for Chevrolet, a dabbler in sacred American musical traditions, but with beer on the brain, summer sun overhead, and outfield grass under foot, he went down mighty easy.

Bob Dylan refuses to go down easy. As always, I pitied the poor Dylan concert rookies around me, especially the teenagers who pre-show kept talking about finally getting to see “Bob Fucking Dylan”. Dylan concerts are just not the place for pumping your fist, or shouting along to your favorite lyric, or raising your cell-phone in the air, or cheering your lungs out. They’re mind-boggling affairs that can swerve from being torturous to sublime in a matter of seconds, as Dylan and his band of stone-faced professionals turn his vaunted songbook into a demented jukebox of dirty blues and apocalyptic gospel.

The new twist on Dylan’s current tour is that he is playing guitar on the first two or three songs of every show. Tonight he held a beautiful merlot-colored Duesenberg at an awkward 45-degree angle and soloed intermittently on opener “Cat’s in the Well” and follower “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. Standing up there holding his guitar like a rifle, dressed like a horse-trader in Maximilian’s Mexico, and groaning out the words of his songs like a bullfrog in heat, the former voice of a generation was well on his way to mystifying everyone in attendance. After Dylan moved to keyboard, where he stayed for the rest of the set, the band settled in and his vocals nearly became understandable. The setlist featured a raging march of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” alongside such other Dylan concert staples like “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”, and “Lonesome Day Blues” — a selection heavy on classics and light on rarities.

Although the virtuosic heights of the Larry Campbell — Charlie Sexton days may be long past, the current crop of players is nothing to shrug about. These guys were able to rumble and churn while keeping an ever-watchful eye on their eccentric leader. There were a couple of moments during the show when it was obvious that Dylan had surprised everyone on stage by neglecting to start the next verse or continuing to solo on piano for a few more unexpected bars. For a Dylan sideman, it pays to never stop watching the boss.

Witnessing the rock ‘n’ roll bonanza of a Dylan show never gets boring for me. The screeching harmonica solos, Dylan’s elusive vocal phrasing, the treatment of songs all carry a fascination no doubt furthered by the implication that each time I see Dylan, I believe it’s going to be the last. Next time he comes through, I will probably miss him — that is, if there is a next time. I probably will never get to hear him sing “Visions of Johanna.” It’s also nice to know you’re guaranteed to hear one of the greatest songs ever written. A cursory tour through the essential reveals that “Like a Rolling Stone” has been on nearly every Dylan set list since 1999 or so. The version played Tuesday night was rollicking and groovy, and not that far off from the original. There was even room in the arrangement for the crowd to howl out together a “How does it feel?” even though Dylan himself would sing the line a few beats later.

These two aging greats and one aging pretender made up for one doozy of a triple-header. While Nelson and Dylan are sweeping out their own unique pathways into the cornfield at the end of the rainbow, catering their games to the shapes of their own debilitating but nevertheless resilient bodies, Mellencamp is juicing up and striking out in a paroxysm of misplaced pride. It proves many of our favorite slogans all at once: if you build it, they will come; just can’t wait to get on the road again; when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. Ain’t that America?