Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan in Durham

We packed two cars full of teenagers yesterday to see Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Bob Dylan perform at the Durham Athletic Park. Even making allowances for the downsides that go with ballpark concerts (bad seating and poor acoustics), I wouldn't recommend paying $70 per ticket for this tour unless you're a big Mellencamp fan.

The opening act was actually the musical highlight of the evening for me, an acoustic jug-band group called The Wiyos. Their playing and vocal harmonies were tight and upbeat, and the overall sound quality was the best of the evening.

Willie Nelson followed with a small, low-tech and low-key ensemble that focused attention on his singing and guitar playing. Unfortunately, he didn't sing much, half-talking his way through his long and venerable repetoire of country and pop classics. When Willie did bother to sing, his voice was rich and strong, but "perfunctory" would be a kind way to describe most of his vocal and instrumental work. The fans loved him, though, and he reciprocated by frequently pointing at and/or blowing kisses to the most enthusiastic of them. A very few were rewarded with one of his trademark red bandanas, which on this afternoon were soaked with sweat. I suppose it's remarkable that a 76-year-old man can still perform on a sun-drenched stage in 95-degree heat, but that didn't make the music any better.

John Mellencamp was up next, and he gave full value. Though I've never been a fan, he completely won me over. His voice sounds as good as it ever did, and he worked hard on stage, punctuating his lyrics with enthusiastic jumps, kicks, and fist-pumps. This from a man who is on the downslope toward 60. He even had me singing on "Hurts So Good," and I just don't do that. One of my teenagers remarked afterward, "I'd like to go to a Mellencamp concert some time."

The highlight of the show should have been the headliner, Bob Dylan. I will give him this: he and his band looked really cool. And as far as I could tell, his band played well. But the volume for the Dylan set was so loud and the sound consequently so muddy that it's hard to be sure.

What little is left of Dylan's ravaged voice and expressive power could occasionally be discerned if you had earplugs and patience. But his phrasing is hurried and apparently bored (especially on his older classics), to the extent that it was hard to make out even the lyrics I knew by heart.

So I did something I've never done: I walked out of the stadium and waited for the rest of my crew in the concourse. I couldn't help but notice that hundreds of others were doing the same, steadily streaming out, looking bored. I would guess that about a third of the audience was gone by the time the show was over.

I wasn't actually expecting a great performance from Dylan. We all know he's far past his prime; part of me just wanted to lay eyes on the great man since I'd never seen him perform live. But whatever was good in his performance was ruined by truly horrible sound engineering.

Update: Horbrastar concurs, and also left early.