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.


Diane Grey Davis said...

Lowell and I saw WIllie in Greensboro years ago. We went to several musical performances there and decided that the sound is so terrible that we didn't want to go back.
The only one with half-decent sound was Elvis and someone told me that he traveled with his own set up - whatever that means.

Although I have attended some pretty good concerts at the old War Memorial Stadium, sports venues are not for folks who appreciate ANY KIND OF MUSIC.

I guess you are right when you say just to see, not hear.

jhs said...

DW: I was thinking about taking the wife (she loves Dylan) and I love Willie, but I had concerns about their ability to perform and chose not to bother.

I figured if they each played a full set I would be bored stiff by the time Dylan came on. Anyway, I can always listen to Hendrix cover All Along the Watchtower to appreciate Dylan's genius.

Thnx for the review.

jimcaserta said...

I'm assuming it was at the old DAP. How do you compare that to WMS? DAP had its day in the sun with Bull Durham, but when I played baseball there 3 years ago or so, it was in really rough shape. I hope WMS never gets to that point.

David Wharton said...

Jim, it was at the new park, which was quite nice.

I think Greensboro's WWMS is toast, and I'm past caring, since (almost) nobody else does.

JP said...

"I wasn't actually expecting a great performance from Dylan."

Do us fans a favor David and stay home next time Dylan comes around. It will free up a parking spot and a little room in the stadium. I've seen him 10 times since 2000 and he and the band sounded GREAT. The band was tight and powerful and Bob's voice flowed like electrified honey. It was the best sounding show I've heard in years.

David Wharton said...

JP, there seemed to be plenty of space for everybody, especially during the Dylan set.

richfeim said...

i agree that the show sounded great. i enjoyed the interplay between dylan and the band on several songs. teriffic show.

Michael Pelz-Sherman said...

The sound during the Dylan show was MUCH better down on the field in front of the stage. The echo from the bleachers made it impossible to appreciate. I thought the Dylan set was magnificent, once I got off my ass and got down on the field.

Anonymous said...

Why do I constantly hear the barrage of comments about Dylan sounding horrible, not having the power he used to, etc. Look, let me put it this way, as Leonard Cohen did: when you see Dylan you're attending a genius unfold his materpiece. It's like having a troubadour or Picasso paint for you with music and words. Dylan is in such a constant state of transformation that he even changes his phrasing on the spot, and the music is just different every night. Phrasing is a sign of poet. That words survive every little tweak and different arrangement is evidence enough of this. He goes deep, but only if you're interested.

David Wharton said...

Anon, you might consider the idea that you hear this barrage of comments because he DOES sound horrible.

I complained about his phrasing not because it was different, but because it was bad -- hurried, monotonous, and bored.

JohnnyRussia said...

re: Dylan: "We all know he's far past his prime."

We do?

A musician isn't an athlete; age does not preclude continued stellar work. I suggest you go to more than a single Dylan show at a ballpark to pass that type of judgement. I also suggest you listen to "Time Out of Mind," Love & Theft," Modern Times," and/or " Together Through Life"--all written and recorded over the past 12 years--and then try to pass off this "past his prime" nonsense.

Art isn't baseball, but what Dylan may have lost off his fastball he more than makes up for with his change-of-pace.

David Wharton said...

I own "Love and Theft" and like a few of its songs, especially "Mississippi" and "Po' Boy." The fact that Dylan is still producing good work doesn't mean he's not past his prime.

I like some late vocal work by Sinatra, too, but it's no insult to say that he lacked the expressive range he had in middle age.

Matt said...

like someone mentioned earlier, the sound was horrible up by the seats. the echo was bone shattering, don't see how everyone put up with it. however, Dylan and the band sounded superb in front of the stage! I was one of the many people who left early. I wanted to stay sooo bad but had only gotten 3 hours of sleep the night before and had to bust my butt, hardcore, at work for the past 10 hours leading up to the show. plus, the heat was unbearable, I was packed into a bunch of random peeps like a sardine and everyone was loaded like bottle rockets on the 4th of July. I wanted to avoid the drunken traffic mess that was about to ensue. otherwise, the show was great, great, great! the highlight of that night for me was being able to hear 'If You Ever Go to Houston.' I've mastered this rad head-bob move for the song that I got to show off Tuesday night. good times. thanks for the jams, Bob! I had a ball!

Jim Smith said...

It may be "no insult" to say that an artist "lack[s] the expressive range he had in middle age," but that is not what your readers are scolding you for. You did not do anything so polite, and your implication that you have done so in the case of Dylan is, at best, disingenuous. You spoke about his "ravaged voice" (would you use the word "ravaged" to describe even Reprise-era Sinatra?) and walked out in the middle of his set. More insultingly, you imply that the others who were doing the same shared your critical stance rather than, for instance, having an early bedtime.

And you thereby called into question the taste of anyone who happens to believe, as it appears many people do, that Dylan is doing just fine for himself and his art.

What is more, you apparently think that your position is novel--that Dylan's voice (or perhaps his "bored" vocalisms?) has only recently done this terrible thing you write about. Read Chronicles--he brings up his phrasing himself.

And, last, I think that many of us who regularly read about his performances are beginning to feel that critics like you--ones who boast of owning only a single album--may be having some affect on how the audience performs. "X% of the audience walked out"; "We could see the headlight of hundreds of cars streaming away before Dylan had played the first encore"; etc: the trope is banal, the writing automatic.

David Wharton said...

Jim, at least one other person I know (linked above) left for the same reason I did, but you're probably right that lots of people left because it was getting late. Still, I've never seen that many people leave a concert so early before, even concerts that went far later into the evening.

I've owned a number of Dylan albums over the years: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline, John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Saved, Love and Theft. I might buy more.

You are welcome to your tastes, and I'm happy to have you express them here. My expression of my own tastes does not in any way imply an insult to those who disagree. Nor do you need worry about this little-read blog damaging Dylan's reputation or feelings.

I'm not a music critic, nor have I read (or written) any reviews of Dylan's ballpark concerts before. But if a lot of people are saying the same kinds of things you read here, you might at least consider that maybe we're not all just banal cryptomnesiacs.

Anonymous said...

You are linked at the Expecting Rain site.

= Dylan fans.

Anonymous said...

Bob fans love Bob.

Pop fans do not.


it's been that way since 1966.

Anonymous said...

Carolina born and bred,
Love to hunt the little quail.
Got a hundred-acre spread,
Got some huntin' dogs for sale.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Reggie Jackson at the plate
Seein' nothin' but the curve,
Swing too early or too late
Got to eat what Catfish serve.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Even Billy Martin grins
When the Fish is in the game.
Every season twenty wins
Gonna make the Hall of Fame.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.


Lazy stadium night
Catfish on the mound.
"Strike three," the umpire said,
Batter have to go back and sit down.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Used to work on Mr. Finley's farm
But the old man wouldn't pay
So he packed his glove and took his arm
An' one day he just ran away.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Come up where the Yankees are,
Dress up in a pinstripe suit,
Smoke a custom-made cigar,
Wear an alligator boot.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.