July 8, 2017
Review by Don Ely
There are Outlaws and then there are Elder Statesmen. The Outlaw Music
Festival, which rode into town on the 8th of July was led by two such men,
trailed by a posse of younger guns who one day would hope to wear their
weather-beaten hats. I hesitate to use the term " legend " in describing
Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, but if the thorny crown fits, then... A
beautiful sunny, temperate afternoon was bestowed upon us as we filed into
Joe Louis Arena for seven hours of unparalleled music and cowpunchin'
camaraderie. This show should have been outdoors, perhaps at the West
Riverfront Park where they conduct the Mo Pop Festival later in the month,
but I ain't complainin'. This venue has been home to the Detroit Red Wings
since they were the lowly " Dead Things " and skated their way through
four Stanley Cup championships, and has been the site of numerous live
shows throughout its 37 - year history. Rush and fellow Canadians Max
Webster were the first, on 2/17 and 2/19/80. Now the patina has worn off
and the shinier Little Caesars Arena will open in the fall in the luminous
new District Detroit for hockey, basketball, and concerts. In all that
time this is the first appearance of Bob Dylan and His Band at Joe Louis
We thought the proceedings had commenced without us as there was a band
onstage as we were escorted to our seats on the floor. Turns out it wasn't
Promise Of The Real ( not really sure what they look like, so I wasn't
certain ), so early arrivals scored a little extra bang for their
entertainment buck. POTR began their set soon after and played several
solid numbers. I had seen them backing Neil Young two summers ago but was
unfamiliar with their own material. Lukas Nelson has developed into a fine
guitarist. It's been fun watching his skills grow since seeing him in his
dad's band during the ballpark tours with Bob in 2005, '06, and '09. I
think Promise Of The Real will be headlining their own tours before long.
Lukas and his brother Micah have been apprenticing alongside the Masters
and that augurs well for the future of rock 'n' roll. Next on the slate
were Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit. I've seen Jason on many
occasions with Drive-by Truckers but this was the first on his own. He has
become a star in his own right, and I'm really proud for his success. So
often when a member leaves a band to go solo it's for the wrong reasons
and they sink with little trace. Quite a few of the crowd were there
because of Mr. Isbell. You can tell when a performer's gained popularity
when slightly-drunk females in the audience frequently bellow "
JAAA-SONN!! " ! They played a long set of stirring rock and power ballads
including selections from the new album " The Nashville Sound " .
Alabama-proud, America-centric, family-first songs, and not in a Bad Trump
way. This right-of-center crowd ( the new Outlaws? ) loved every minute.
Jason Isbell has lost weight, re-married, and started a family. He and his
band have sold out five nights at the Ryman coming up in October. He's on
top o' the world and deserves credit for it all.
Sheryl Crow commandeered the stage after the 400 Unit. I hadn't seen her
in more than two decades, in the days of her first album when she used to
open for Blues Traveler. Back then I thought her sets were a bit too long,
but that one day she'd be pretty damned good as she gained experience.
Looks like she made it! It crossed my mind as I sat listening to her music
what an impressive string of hits she had. She polished off many of those,
and naturally numbers from her latest platter, " Be Myself " . At 55 now
her voice remains strong, she looks great ( tho' I had to utilize a wee
bit of imagination as we'd moved upstairs to more spacious environs ), and
seems to be in a high place spiritually and emotionally. I was stoked that
Sheryl was on this bill, one of the best of the Outlaw Music Festival, and
one of multiple headliners. Between sets we would wander the concourse and
run into old friends from throughout the decades, fitting considering the
history of the venue itself.
Back upstairs I contentedly anticipated the arrival of Bob Dylan and His
Band. It had been just over a year since my last shows, and unless there's
a US tour as the Autumn Leaves fall this will be it for 2017. I became
more excited as the moment approached, and things seemed just a little odd
as this wasn't a typical Bob audience. Soon enough the Old Sage and his
crew were alive on the stage, imparting nuggets of wisdom and gold and
silver to the assembled prospectors in the mine of timeless knowledge.
I've stated this previously in recent postings, but this cowboy outfit is
consistently firing on all cylinders like seldom before! Of late I've been
listening to Nashville 9/19/07 and the contrast is remarkable. Bob has
that pesky little voice thing whipped and the songs are presented
strong-as-steel. Tonight we were pleased to receive nearly a full set,
fifteen gems whereas I was expecting maybe only nine. Dare I say it I
especially liked the standards, of which " Stormy Weather " and " Once
Upon A Time " were new to me. I thought they may have been excised from
the shortened setlist. Nothin' like Bob growlin' the lyrics to " Stormy
Weather " across the open air! " Why Try To Change Me Now " was also very
satisfying, and I guess I'd forgotten " Melancholy Mood " as it sounded
new again! But please, Bob, no volume six! " Highway 61 Revisited " has
always been one of my favorite Dylan standards, and I'm happy it's become
a regular addition for the first time in years. Even " Summer Days " felt
refreshing, and " Duquesne Whistle " was given the benefit of a potent
rendering. " Pay In Blood " flows like quicksilver, and " Desolation Row "
has a modified arrangement from what I remember. The most impressive
number continues to be " Early Roman Kings ", perhaps the finest
performance I've yet heard. What began life as a mere throwaway has
metamorphosed into a stunning showstopper. Close your eyes and open your
ears real WIDE and you can put yourself inside 2120 South Michigan. Willie
Dixon has lugged his bass up all those stairs, McKinley Morganfield is
snappin' the strings, and Otis Spann and Fred Below are there too! Only
Little Walter is missing as there's no harp. Tell Leonard Chess to press
up a few hundred copies and get 'em out to the stations! This was my 97th
Bob Dylan show and among the top 30. Or 40. Or 50.
As Outlaws and Elder Statesmen go there are few more revered than good ol'
Willie Nelson. He's a viper. He's worn a big hole in his guitar. He gives
beer to his horses. He's the only guy I know who can be pulled over by the
Louisiana State Police with a sizable amount of marijuana in his tour bus
and get away with it. He once was a short-haired, clean-shaven Nashville
cat who wrote " Crazy ". He may be the Red-Headed Stranger but he's a
friend and brother to you and me. Willie is Family. Back in the '70's and
'80's when I was a Rock 'n' Roll Dog I never took him seriously 'cause he
was Country and doin' those hits like " Always On My Mind " and " To All
The Girls I've Loved ". Things Have Changed. After seeing him at Norwich
6/21/05 I wrote in my Boblinks posting, " There's something very appealing
about the sound Willie squeezes out of his old guitar, often off-key, that
blends well with the other instruments to form a sound all his own.
Although this was the first time I'd ever seen Willie Nelson perform, it
felt so comfortable as though I'd been seeing him for years. Comfort that
reaches into the soul the way Neil Young or Bob Dylan does. " Willie still
plays all those songs almost as one long medley.He's got the stamina of
ten men half his age. Little Sister still gets her place in the sun. And
the man from Abbott, Texas is still adored by his audience.
This may be the last time we see an amalgamation of talent of this nature
all in one place. As everybody knows guys like Bob and Willie, like the
rest of us, are marching toward oblivion. May God Bless Bob Dylan and
Willie Nelson and Keep 'em Always. Thank you Willie Nelson and Blackbird
Presents for bringing this show to Detroit. This was most likely the final
time we'll have enjoyed music at Joe Louis Arena prior to its fateful date
with the wreckingman's ball. Lock up the memory box and toss away the key!
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