If the Americanarama Tour is coming anywhere near you, stop everything you’re doing and go get tickets. This is one of the best, if not the best tour of the summer, and I’m not saying that just because Dylan is involved.
I was able to get tickets for two of these shows (Duluth and St. Paul), which included the Richard Thompson Electric Trio, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Bob Dylan. Other shows featured/will feature Bob Weir, Ryan Bingham, and Beck.
In Duluth, it was a long, rainy wait in line to get into the show, but it paid off as I secured a spot on the rail, in the front row, center stage. In St. Paul, in direct contrast, it was sunny and hot in line, but I was able to snag a nearly identical spot on the rail, perhaps a couple feet to the right of where I stood in Duluth.
The Richard Thompson Electric Trio took the stage first both days. It’s Thompson, plus a rocking bass and thumping set of drums. Thompson has been playing the same five songs each show: “Treadmill,” “Sally B,” “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” “Tear Stained Letter” and “Can’t Win.” Thompson intentionally belittled himself frequently, showing how humble this great musician is. He politely requested that the audience tell no one that he’s a foreigner, and thus doesn’t belong in an Americana tour. In St. Paul, Thompson and Trio were visibly impressed with the audience, as they sang along, per Thompson’s request, on the chorus of “Tear Stained Letter.”
My Morning Jacket was fun both shows, but difficult to hear vocally in the front row. Duluth highlights were a sincere “Golden,” “Librarian” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 2,” complete with matador cape. In St. Paul, MMJ was joined for three songs by Duluth band Trampled By Turtles, which was a very special treat. The two bands collaborated on “Wonderful” (MMJ), the bluegrass/gospel number “There’s a Higher Power” and Trampled’s recent release “Alone.” MMJ singer Jim James bid goodbye in St. Paul by raising his golden panda statue towards the setting sun, a la Lion King. Fitting, because James, with his long hair and beard, kinda looks like a lion.
Wilco was also a very fun group to listen to, but I found it hard to understand singer Jeff Tweedy on occasion. In Duluth, they opened with “Who Loves the Sun?” a Velvet Underground cover, and followed with a fun swing through “Via Chicago.” Richard Thompson joined them for Fairport Convention’s “Sloth,” which brought about an intense guitar battle between Thompson, and Wilco lead guitarist Nels Cline. Low, another Duluth based band, joined Wilco and Thompson on stage for a stunning cover of “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which you’ve never really heard until you hear it played on the shores of the lake responsible for the Fitzgerald’s untimely demise. In St. Paul, My Morning Jacket joined Wilco on stage for a loud, jamming rendition of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” which pleased everyone.
Next, of course, was the main event, Mr. Bob Dylan. His setlists haven’t been changing as much as they usually do, but for these two days, it didn’t matter. Dylan started out a little stronger in Duluth, but in St. Paul he was leading his band with an intense mystique that led to tightly played tunes. As a result, the slower songs stood out more in Duluth, and the louder, bluesier ones in St. Paul. Dylan took the stage both nights to “Things Have Changed,” singing it center stage with no guitar (which is typical these days). A chilling “Love Sick” followed, probably the best arrangement of the song I’ve ever heard. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” was next, a banjo-driven blues with Bob bringing the song back just as it was about to end with a harmonica solo that would fit right in the Mississippi Delta.
Next on the menu was one of Bob’s newer songs: “Soon After Midnight” from Tempest. In Duluth, this was perfect, phrased beautifully. In St. Paul, similar, but a little rougher. The stomping “Early Roman Kings” got some great crowd reactions, especially in Duluth as Bob growled “I’m not dead yet, my bell still rings!”
As the evening progressed both nights, Dylan bobbed and weaved, either from behind his baby grand piano, or center stage with his harp, drawing energy from the standing crowd. “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” both with new lyrics and both sung from the piano, were transformed into regretful songs of missed connections and shaky love.
New from “Tangled”: “All the people that I used to know, they’re illusions to me now. Some are up on the mountain, some are under the ground, some of their names are written in flames, and some of ’em just left town.”
“She Belongs to Me” was a dark stomper, “Summer Days,” less a rock-a-billy tune these days and more of a shuffle. “Blind Willie McTell” was a mystic, foreboding journey, with another false ending blasted back into life by Dylan’s harmonica. “Duquesne Whistle” and “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” were both similar to their studio versions, but guitarist Charlie Sexton and drummer George Receli added an extra edge, accompanied by Dylan’s piano, that raised them to a new level and brought the crowd into thunderous applause. In St. Paul, Bob added some extra staccato to “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” with each phrase dripping with intensity. “All Along the Watchtower” closed the main set both times, not quite as apocalyptic as a decade ago in concert, but still a rousing finish. “Blowin’ in the Wind” with some swinging, sweet fiddle work by Donnie Herron, was sung by Dylan in a strong, convicted way, reminding us all again of the weight of the song.
Of course, I’ve saved mentioning the best for last. Bob Dylan’s first big break into music was when Bobby Vee hired Dylan to play piano for him. Vee was at the St. Paul show, and Bob showed his appreciation with first, a heartfelt request, as he asked all in attendance for a round of applause for Vee, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Dylan said that “the most beautiful person” he’d ever been on stage with was Vee, and, in tribute to the rocker who started Bob’s official music career, offered up a exquisite, touching cover of Vee’s “Susie Baby.” You could feel the emotion from Dylan as he paid tribute to his old friend, a wonderful way to put an exclamation point on two stunning nights of music.