I seldom miss a chance to see Bob Dylan these days, but I’ll admit I wasn’t all that excited about the Americanarama tour that was happening this summer. The tour paired Dylan with younger, popular roots rock bands Wilco and My Morning Jacket. Both bands are fine, and while I’m not exactly a fan, I wouldn’t mind seeing them. It was the increased ticket price that their inclusion would mean that had me undecided. Several dates on the tour, including Duluth, also included Richard Thompson’s Electric Trio, which would definitely be a bonus. The tour wasn’t stopping anywhere in Wisconsin, which left Chicago, Peoria, St Paul or Duluth as my choices. Duluth was hardly the closest location, but once my sister decided to meet me there it made the most sense. I also have some friends there, former residents of Madison who are in love with their new town just over the Wisconsin border, who were also planning on going.
They didn’t arrive till after MMJ and circumstances kept my sister from attending, so I was on my own for the first two bands. Which was just fine. I got close fairly close, which made me think how awesome it would be to see Dylan from that spot. Alas, I knew I would want another beer, and that beer would lead to needing a trip to the port-a-potties. Thompson and his crack band played exactly a half hour, starting promptly at 6 and ending exactly at 6:30. I’d asked on the way in what the camera policy and was told I could have an “instamatic” type camera, but nothing bigger. Is instamatic even something they make anymore? I left mine in the car, which was a good decision because I was told immediately I couldn’t even take pictures on my iPhone. Thompson was having a great time, his distinctive voice still sounding exactly the same after all these years. He welcomed us to the Americanarama, imploring us to keep it a secret that he wasn’t from America.
My clearest memory from the first time I saw My Morning Jacket is a sea of hair, much of it prettier than mine. Only the drummer and lead singer Jim James still have gracefully flowing locks, but cutting their hair certainly didn’t cause them to lose their strength. It was an entertaining 45 minute set, but they do have a tendency to be too jammy. When they are tight and on track they can be mesmerizing, but they lose me when the extended jams start. I only have their first two records, but I still knew quite a few of their songs. Despite the fact that I am sure he was wearing Hardee’s uniform pants (his or from a thrift store I don’t know), James looked adorable, the enthusiasm written all over his baby face.
I had no idea that my friends were there specifically to see Wilco. I just figured that not much happened in Duluth so you just went to whatever happened to be in town. Nope, turns out Wilco was on his bucket list. Unfortunately he wasn’t very impressed, though he did like Jeff Tweedy’s hat. For my part I lost interest in Wilco after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, subsequent records were either noisy or boring, or both, but I still enjoy them live when they play anything from those first four records or from the Mermaid Avenue records they did with Billy Bragg. Luckily they do still draw a good chunk of every set from their early material. “Jesus Etc” from YHF may be the most perfect song they’ve ever written, and I still get a chill every time I hear it. Almost equally good are “California Stars” and the nonsensical “Hoodoo Voodoo,” both from Mermaid, which paired their original music to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. In what may have been perceived as a pandering move, they brought guest vocalists (I didn’t know it then, but it was Duluth music royalty, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low) out to sing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I can’t speak for the rest of the Duluthians, but it didn’t work on my friends. Apparently you don’t mess with that song around these parts, where everybody knows somebody who lost someone in the wreck. Personally, I thought it was pretty cool.
It had been a long day, but Bob Dylan and his band made it worth the wait. While he’d been known to pick up a guitar recently, he’d played almost exclusively keyboards or harmonica for the last several years. He was playing even less tonight, sometimes just standing at the keyboard or holding the harmonica and blowing only a couple notes. It probably bothered some people, but I was just fine with it. (Obviously they’d never seen the occasional mess that was called a show in the Eighties.) It was a good set list, surprisingly heavy on songs from last year’s release Tempest. Surprising considering that he didn’t play anything from the then just released record when we saw him back in October. The plodding “Early Roman Kings” with its chugging blues riff isn’t my favorite, but the pretty “Soon After Midnight” and the lighthearted “Duquesne Whistle” were both great. “Simple Twist of Fate” is one of my top ten all-time favorite Dylan songs, and I always get pretty excited when it shows up live.
I thought I never needed to hear the omnipresent “Tangled Up in Blue” again, I was wrong. He’s completely reinvented it yet again. The melody was more lighthearted, more, for lack of a better word, jazzy, than it had been all the dozens of times I’d heard it before. Dylan has long been known to change the words to songs live, and I thought I’d heard most versions of “Blue,” but he pulled a new line out of his hat tonight. “She lit a burner on the stove,” the verse began in its usual way, “and then brushed off the dust.” He had my attention. “She looked at me and said to me you don’t look like someone I can trust.” Or maybe it was “you do look like,” but I like it better with the “don’t.” Funny what a difference a few simple changes can make. This was the song I was talking about the next day. This was my 44th Bob Dylan show, it’s good to know he can still blow me away.