August 14, 2009
Review by James Strohecker
Fresno - the heart of California’s produce-growing Valley
and a stepping stone to Yosemite National Park.
The weather was hot and so were Bob and his band.
The night belonged to Dylan.
In his 14-song set, Bob interspersed a number of surprise tunes, some
tight, late-tour playing by his band, and his usual harp-solos, organ grinding
and some fine Les Paul guitar playing
It was a hot Fresno afternoon. In other places around
the U.S., you’d see big trucks hauling loads of gravel on the highway. In
Fresno, those trucks are filled with tomatoes (or stacked high with some fruit
or vegetable going to the processing or shipping plant). The band played in a
nice new ballpark in a downtown that had seen better days and is in need of some
revitalization; there are more Bail Bonds operations than restaurants and we
were advised to “Not walk around here after dark,” by the hotel clerk. No
matter - the show took care of any challenges.
Anyway, the show opened with the Wiyos – a semi-rockabilly
group that was giving it their all.
Willie Nelson and Family followed them with an hour-long set that he
opened with Whiskey River, banging on his old beat-up guitar and making it
sound like magic. His guitar is one of
legend – featured that morning in the Fresno Bee newspaper (a solid paper, by
the way) – and he has a way of making it sound like both a lead and rhythm
guitarists are playing on it.
Willie followed with Bloody Mary Morning – a song that, if
you were on tour watching Bob and these bands, you probably had a few of –
followed by a rich, though toned-down version of Good Hearted Woman and a medley
of Crazy and Night Life. All songs were short, succinct and rich – and as he
worked through his set in the hot sun, he progressively donned first his black
cowboy hat that he replaced with his standard red bandanna and then he just let
his shoulder-length grey hair move in the light breeze.
The fans were mostly collected in the shade of the stands in
this modern AAA-baseball ballpark, enjoying the libations, food and summer
afternoon. All were well served by a
very good, well-staffed amenities team.
Hats off to this operation for a fine operation and nice, smiling people
providing the food/beverages.
Willie rolled into On The Road Again and finished with a
cadre of hits with You Were Always on My Mind.
His version of On The Road Again certainly is a theme song for Bob and
this troupe, but also an epiphany: how
many of you have ventured out to see Bob this summer or taken a trip? Maybe
it’s time to get on the road again? Think about it.
Next up, John (Cougar) Mellencamp was fairly aggressive in
his performance. The band was much
stronger at the end than the start – with solid harmonies by the group and a
fine performance by his violinist and lead guitarist – with cuts off his new
album, No Better Than This, as well as some old standards. A solid finish to
what he described as a, “garage band,” and he brought his son on stage to
audition for the band (how many times had he done this on tour?).
As the evening sun waned and the air cooled, Bob and his
band took the stage – staged from left
to right with Stu, Donny, Tony, George, Denny and Bob. The band members were
resplendent in their light grey suits, most wearing black hats. While Bob
looked sharp in a black suit with a lime-green shirt with a Bolo Tie with a
silver and turquoise centerpiece, topped by an all-white round Gaucho hat.
Dylan quickly launched them into Ballad of a Thin Man,
predictable but strong. The band was
tight early and Bob’s voice ranged into the night air – from low to higher
notes. They quickly jumped into The Times They Are A-Changin’, with Bob
ripping on a Les Paul guitar. They played this hard and big – one of the
highlights of the evening, and one of only five times they played it in 2009
(Source: Bill Pagel, http://www.boblinks.com/song2009.html). The band followed
Changin’ with a seamless transition into You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, an
excellent version that only was only played four times this year. It wasn’t
dusty at all – Bob ripped the single-note solos and the band followed tightly
along. Well performed, well played and endemic of the strength of the band and
its musical talents [NOTE: check out these songs if you can find them –
worth listening to.].
They followed with Things Have Changed; this showed off Bob as the master band
leader. No matter who he has in his band, he can make them sound good (most of
the time) on strong, solid songs – even if he adjusts or the arrangement.
Things Have Changed (performed only 15 times this year) was steady, strong,
melodic and driven by Tony’s bass, George's drums and the three guitarists.
Really sounded good, much to the crowd’s appreciation.
The band was rolling now and they launched into a ripper The
Levee’s Gonna Break. Stu and Donny both peeled
off some licks, though (as you’ll read later), they seemed to have a bridle on
them – held back by the man with the reins, Sir Dylan. You could tell that
the band member “horses” really wanted to run and rip some solos and these
songs further, but Bob kept pulling them back . . .
They followed Levee with Spirit on the Water that was backed
by a solid downbeat and strong lyrics. Spirit on the Water was certainly based
around the lyric, “We can have a whoppin’ good time.” And most of the
Bob and the band were rolling through the set now and they
rocked into Tweedle Dee that though tight in performance, was looking for
someone to step up and rip a solo or three.
All of the band held back – looking to Bob for direction (Donnie clicked
off a quiet solo, but if you weren’t paying attention, you missed it).
Albeit strong and true, Tweedle could have been carried about ten notches
further with a few individual riffs.
Love Sick left a lot of the audience speechless – quite
frankly, it was Bob at his best. In
words, emphasis, bluesy organ and then out to center stage to cap the
song. It was all there. Bob went back-and-forth with harp and lyrics
as the band followed closely. Some real
R&B genius built into, and performed by Dylan on the Fresno stage with
this. Played only 10 times this year,
this song was/is a real gem.
They followed with a Strat-o-matic Highway 61 Revisited that
rocked them into a surprising Workingman’s Blues #2. Workingman’s Blues #2
was, as usual, a soulful empathetic approach to the current economy – and
certainly to the local economy in the Fresno Valley, where people and businesses
have been hit by tough times, lowered crop prices, reduced loan availability and
the lack of jobs. His lyrics say it all:
There's an evenin' haze settlin' over
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's gettin' shallow and weak
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It's a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad
Meet me at the bottom, don't lag
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman's blues
Dylan was rolling in his rendition of Thunder on the
Mountain – the setup for the Encore that had Donnie ripping some solos on his
Les Paul guitar – in his position on stage, in line where Bob wanted him, of
course. Again, it’s not that Donnie isn’t good, it’s just that Bob
doesn’t let him step out and perform. And I think the crowd doesn’t get
the full impact of the quality and artistry of the musicians and the individual
playing as a result. [NOTE TO BAND MEMBERS: You’re all good enough to do
solos – and it looked like Bob was even encouraging you to take some
initiative. Just do it!].
The Dylan Band finished with their usual LARS, Jolene,
Watchtower encore. All were strong –
LARS was particularly solid, guitar-driven and upbeat. A nice finish to the
evening followed by an interesting Jolene. I like the melody of Jolene, good
Bob vocals and a simplified approach to completing the show and as a lead-in to
All Along The Watchtower. If you haven’t yet bought it, I strongly recommend
Bob’s current album, Together Through Life. It’s worth a listen, and I
think you’ll like the song, Jolene. Watchtower capped a fine, strong
performance and solid (albeit short) show. As noted, the band is in late-tour
mode and was well-rehearsed and there were no odd or clunky transitions. A
no-mistakes performance filled with some rich, unusual songs played well.
Sure, at times Bob was going through his usual “tour-song
motions.” But at other times he seemed
to be enjoying the Band’s sound and the time on the stage. Perhaps it’s
because he’s cut down their sets so radically that they’re only playing half
a show (compared to the early 2000’s).
The only challenge I see is that this group is lacking a
show-enhancer – which you’d see in a showier rock-and-roll band. Perhaps
Stu and Donny just aren’t up to the task – or they don’t want to get
yelled at by Bob for ripping a solo. But it’s the end of the tour and
you’d think they’d want to give it a rip to finish on. And you’d also
expect some of the playful engagement that Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell
used to have when they would play across the stage at and with each other,
laughing as they did it.
As Michael Nave wrote in is fine review of the Round Rock,
Texas show, where he was lucky enough to catch Charlie Sexton’s one show with
this band (Source: http://www.boblinks.com/080409r.html), as usual in Fresno
the band looked to Bob for any direction. The band still looks to him for all
cues. Donny couldn’t step out and crank a solo if some stagehand knocked
over a stand that kicked Donny in the ass and pushed him onto the stage. Stu
is a stiff who played well early on and then faded into obscurity like when
Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson stepped onto the stage with the band (Source:
Thanks again to the nice people in Fresno and the fine job/concert. For my
friends in Germany and around the world: Bob’s upcoming tour starts in
Seattle and comes down the West Coast – and yes, the Amtrak train will get you
from Seattle, Washington to Portland, to Eugene, to L.A., through some beautiful
country. I’ll look for you in the Northwest and in California – and I’ll
bet that the two shows in Berkeley will be telltales. A few years ago he
tipped his hat to Neil Young and played, “Old Man.” Maybe something
compelling this fall? Then he’ll take his gig to L.A. and the Hollywood
crowd, i.e., his neighbors, the paparazzi, people who are there to be seen, and
some real true fans, e.g., “Hey –there’s Jack!” (Nicholson – spotted
at a Dylan show by friends). Be there. Aloha.
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