Lake Elsinore, California

The Diamond

August 12, 2009

[R. J. Salo], [Falling James]

Review by R. J. Salo

It was a long long long hot afternoon and evening. Willie was OK but the
sound system lacked. I have seen Willie a number of times and he is
usually pretty good and this evening was no different. But the fact that
it was still 102 degrees didn't help anything.
The surprise was Mellencamp, who I have never been a fan of. His music
is honest American rock & roll and any band that has an accordion player
and a violin player gets my vote.
Now on to why we were all there. To see the man. Again.
I would like to address all the comments about his voice. I don't get
it. I always understand what he is singing. Complaining about his voice
is like complaining about the wrapping on a gift.
A number of years ago there was a song called "Feel my love" done as a
movie soundtrack by Garth Brooks. My wife loved the song and told me
that Dylan wrote it - so I listened and I liked it. But when I heard the
Dylan god.
The Garth Brooks version sounds like it cost a million dollars to
produce and everything was perfect - his voice  - beautiful. Like a
million other singers produced in the studio (no disrespect to Garth) 
The Dylan version sounds like a homeless guy singing from the gutter
with a broken guitar. It is so dark and compelling - it draws you in .
Dylan's voice - so world weary it is stunning. Almost scary. A little.
Tuesday night in Lake Elsinore was no different - "Beyond here lies
nothing" (with Donnie on trumpet?) was amazing BUT "Love Sick" was so
stark and in your face I think it shocked a lot of  fans and that is
when people started leaving (I thought it was awesome-the whole song I
sat with my mouth hanging open, totally speechless). As a matter of fact
the more the show went on , the better Dylan got and more people left
(?). Summer Days and Po' Boy were really good as always but Highway 61 I
have seen so many times I have really grown tired of it and I always
liked the Johnny Winter version better anyway.
Big shock to longtime Dylan fan:  Highway 61 has become some kind of
rock n roll avant garde extended jam now sounding different than I have
heard in a really long time. The instrumental part in the middle started
to sound like progressive rock to this writers ears. Couldn't hardly
believe it. Sounded like YES for a minute. Now I cant wait to see him do
it again next time (this October in Hollywood for me).
Now for the best part - I really really really like Jolene but it has
become even hotter live than the album version. 
I cant get that riff out of my head: da da da da da da dum, Jolene.
If I had it to do all over again I would have waited and showed up after
9 when it was nice and dark (and cool) and just caught Dylan.
Willie and Mellencamp were good but not great - Dylan was great. Like
always. People ask what is my favorite Dylan concert and I always pick
one but then I get to thinking and realize that they are all my favorite
Dylan concerts. Just like the next one.

RJ Salo


Review by Falling James


Bob Dylan & His Band, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson & Family, The Wiyos, 
plus an unidentified group of folkie street musicians playing outside the 
ballpark, at the Diamond, Lake Elsinore, Wednesday, August 12, 2009.

Seeing Bob Dylan tonight in Lake Elsinore felt like my big trip out of town 
for the summer. Lake Elsinore is just far enough away to be considered 
exotic. It’s a couple of hours southeast of Los Angeles, on the western 
edge of Tennessee-shaped Riverside County, in a part of Southern
 California I haven’t explored much before. Last night, I was so
excited, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up even later than usual, poring over a
map and trying to imagine what the place was like. Lake Elsinore looked 
like it was past the edges of the sprawling Southland suburbs, out in the 
middle of nowhere.

I’ve been keeping my eye on this date for weeks, ever since I realized it 
was the closest Dylan was coming to Los Angeles on this particular bend 
of his Never-Ending Tour. He and his band (known as “His Band”) had just 
played in Texas and New Mexico, and they’re hitting Stockton, Fresno 
and Lake Tahoe in the next four days. Dylan’s in the midst of a tour of 
minor-league ballparks, headlining a package bill with John Mellencamp, 
Willie Nelson & Family, and The Wiyos.

It was a hot, dry day. The sky was
cloudless but a little hazy and not too smoggy. The terrain south of Corona was
barren except for dead grass and brush that made the hills gleam with an
especially vivid golden yellow in the summertime light. The Santa Ana Mountains
rose steeply just to the west of Interstate 15, the jagged skyline becoming its
own horizon. On the other side of those mountains presumably lay Laguna Beach
and the Pacific Ocean, but on this side it was clear that we were in a stark and
distinctly beautiful desert, especially as we drove farther away from the

I saw Lake
Elsinore, the largest freshwater lake
in Southern California, as we approached its
small namesake city, which was wrapped protectively around the shoreline. A
digital sign in town announced that it was still 102 degrees Fahrenheit at 5
p.m. The warm, floating air felt just like the desert, even here by the side of
a lake. The Diamond, home to the single-A minor-league baseball team the Lake
Elsinore Storm, is located along the southeastern shore. The line of people
waiting to get into the stadium extended all the way across the street, out to
the end of the parking lot. We got in the back of the line and walked past a row
of parked campers and trailers, whose occupants were blasting old Dylan songs,
getting drunk and whooping it up. Most of them looked like they’d been
partying all day, or longer.

As the snaking line of humanity
slowly wove its way into the stadium, we passed a ragged, boisterous band of
young folk-blues-punk street musicians with acoustic guitars, a washboard and a
washtub bass. They were jamming for tips on the sidewalk out front and sounded
pretty good.

By the time we got inside the
Diamond, the Wiyos were already performing on a large stage set up in shallow
right/center field. The Brooklyn band were enjoyable, digging up a folksy
pastiche of retro blues, and they reminded me a little of the street band who
were probably still making a folk-punk racket outside the stadium, except that
the Wiyos had poppier vocals. There was also something more predictable and
stylized about the Wiyos’ old-timey sound, whereas the unplugged street band
was rawer and louder.

The Wiyos did a Blind Willie
McTell cover, which was a cool choice but blandly delivered. Their jaunty
version could’ve used more mystery. But it wasn’t entirely the band’s
fault. The volume was really low, with a thin mix, which was set up more like
background music as people arrived. It must have been difficult to create
mystery in this bucolic setting, a family day at the ballpark, in the warm
California sun.

The Diamond has a listed capacity
of about 6,000 people, probably not counting the two or three thousand you
could fit on the field. After more fans showed up, the park appeared to about
two-thirds filled. I’m guessing that attendance was somewhere between 5,000
and 6,000. There was plenty of standing room on the field, and there were a lot
of empty seats in the stands, down the right and left field lines. Either way,
it felt comfortable and relaxed, instead of with the usual pushing and shoving
at an overcrowded, sold-out concert. You could go where you wanted, sit up in
the stands or lie on the outfield grass. 

The crowd was a mix of all ages,
with young devotees and hardcore true believers standing in the sun in front of
the stage, and more of the older fans (perhaps Willie Nelson’s?) in the
stands. It appeared that Dylan had drawn most of the younger folks, including a
group of hippie-ish Deadheads sprawling on the edges of the outfield, but it was
more difficult to guess who the older people were there to see. You couldn’t
underestimate the large contingent who were there primarily for John Mellencamp.

Willie Nelson & Family were
hustled quickly out onstage at 6:15 p.m., and they played for an hour, just one
great song right after another, bam bam bam. It was still sunny and very hot.
Willie was dressed all in black, with black pants, a black sleeveless tank top
and a black cowboy hat. Despite the heat, Willie never seemed to waver. Halfway
through the set, he threw his cowboy hat into the mob of a thousand or two folks
who were now standing in front of the stage. Then he put on a big tan sombrero
and kept on going.

There’s something so classic and
familiar about Willie Nelson’s songs and his voice, it felt like I’ve seen
him many times before. It felt hazy, dreamlike and unreal as he spun through a
seemingly quick set of his own songs and classics by others. Maybe it was the
heat. As I stared across the field at Willie standing strong in the hot
late-afternoon sun, strumming up a storm with that legendary, beat-up old
acoustic guitar, I wondered if I was seeing a mirage. I thought I was staring
into a bottle of amber, and there he was, iconic and larger than life, sounding
just like himself, as seen on TV . . .

Nelson set his warm, easygoing
vocals to a lot of Hank Williams tunes, including “Hey Good Looking” and
“Jambalaya,” as well as a blurry montage of such favorites as “Crazy,”
“Always on My Mind” and “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be
Cowboys.” I think he also did “Whiskey River” and “Georgia on My
Mind,” but I’m already starting to forget now, like it really was a dream.

Willie’s son Lukas Nelson played
fiery blues-rock lead guitar and sang lead on one song. Lukas was young,
handsome, and deft with the Stevie Ray–style licks, and you could hear a lot
of his dad in his own mournful vocals. The guitarists (including Willie) and
bassist stood up front and engaged in some cookin’ little jams.

Willie impressed me with fluidly
groovy bluesy-jazzy lead-guitar runs that he’d flip quickly within the chords
or spin out into longer jams, as his band ramped up throbbing boogies behind
him. It was a good set, even if it was kind of under-amplified and bleached out
by the dry desert sun. Pieces of his show are still sinking into my
consciousness even now, hours later. I still think that Willie deserved to play
higher (pun suddenly realized, and now intended) on the bill. He’s certainly
more important and legendary than John Mellencamp.

Nonetheless, the former Johnny
Cougar received a bigger ovation when he and his band came out on stage at 7:50
p.m. and swung into “Pink Houses.” They had a louder, fuller stadium-like
sound, with overly big drums. They rocked harder and had more of a crunching
beat, but Willie Nelson’s band had more of an organic, soulful groove, despite
(or perhaps because of) their more acoustic-based sound and softer volume.

Mellencamp had the advantage of
starting his set as the sun was going down over the Elsinore
Mountains (the local segment of the Santa Ana Mountains), which loomed just two
or three miles to the west, on the other side of the lake. It became dark
quickly after the sun ducked behind the mountains, and the thickening shadows
gave the stadium more of a rock & roll atmosphere.

I don’t hate Mellencamp, and even
enjoy a couple of his songs, but he’s kind of a lightweight in a snoozy,
pseudo-blue-collar, mainstream Americana
way. His show tonight was alright, but it was also obvious and stodgy. I liked
the few weird moments when his violinist added febrile, exotic layerings to
songs that were suddenly a lot more mesmerizing. Mellencamp’s hour-long set
wasn’t terrible, and some of it was tuneful, but it was generally ordinary,
and he did way too much preening and posturing. The band ran through most of
their famous songs, like the catchy “Rocking in the USA.” I recall something
else called “Check It Out,” but, after checking it out, I decided to chuck
it out of my memory.

Mellencamp strummed a midset solo
acoustic segment, which was a nice break from the generic rock bluster of the
rest of his show, but the unplugged songs just weren’t stirring enough. I
couldn’t help wishing that it was Bob Dylan who was doing the folkie unplugged
bit tonight instead of Mellencamp. The Christian pop-rocker T-Bone Burnett came
out as a special guest for a song or two, but he wasn’t all that special,
disappearing into the background, both visually and musically. (You’d think
Burnett would be more likely to jump onstage with his old pal Dylan, who invited
him along on the Rolling Thunder tour in the mid-1970s.)

Bob Dylan & His Band ambled
out onstage at 9:20 p.m. They had a big, full rock sound somewhat like
Mellencamp’s, but their mix wasn’t nearly as booming and bombastic. They
were definitely louder than Willie Nelson, but their mix also had more dynamic
range and clarity than Mellencamp’s dull roar.

Dylan began with “Ballad of a Thin
Man,” which I thought was a strange choice to start a show. It’s so intense,
dark and heavy — something that you would want to build up to, maybe even
close with, or set off as a contrasting break among cheerier numbers. But
perhaps that’s how he was feeling tonight, and he wanted to plunge right into
that soul-scouring mood before getting to anything else. Could it have been some
kind of warning? Maybe it was his way of saying he felt like he was slipping
away into loneliness, desperation and mortality, just like Mr. Jones, and this
was his public cry for help from the git-go.

And maybe there was no special
meaning to the song’s placement. Perhaps Bob just wanted to get the old tune
out of the way early in the set. Maybe it was a good song to warm up with. When
I saw him play at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium last year, “Thin Man”
was a dramatic emotional peak, coming about halfway through the set. That night,
Dylan’s harmonica solo twisted together artfully with Denny Freeman’s
mimicking guitar, fusing into a simple-but-mesmerizing chiming pattern.

Tonight’s version of “Ballad of a
Thin Man” didn’t have the same licks, but Dylan still wailed a good, strong
harp solo. His harmonica playing is so much more melodic and exacting nowadays.
In the distant past, he used to flail at random notes before settling
accidentally on the ones he liked, but now he knows where he’s going. That
makes it easier for Freeman to play off him and flesh out Dylan’s spontaneous
ideas into a mesmerizing call & response. Similarly, Dylan answers the
open-ended melodic questions in his lyrics and singing with more of his own
pulsing keyboard riffs and harp retorts.

He started on keyboards on “Ballad
of a Thin Man,” but halfway through the song he stepped out to the center of
the stage, clutching two microphones, one for singing and one for his harmonica.
It was like he was a crooner or a showman. Maybe he was going to do some wild
James Brown–style dance steps?

He strapped on an electric guitar
for the second song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which turned out to
be the only time he played guitar tonight. He scratched out a cool, bluesy
guitar solo, but his singing was very raw and husky. It sounded like he’d
blown his voice out. Would he be able to pull off singing a full show?

Dylan handed off his guitar and
stood center stage holding the microphone for the next song. Back to his
swingin’-crooner mode. His craggy vocals fit better amid the rollicking blues
swells of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” (the first track on Together Through
Life), coming off with the rusty charm of an old blues man. “Down here lies
nothing/but the mountains of the past,” he growled, as multi-instrumentalist
Donnie Herron belched out a swanky trumpet accompaniment in the shadow of the
Santa Anas.

I thought Bob also sang something
like “Beyond here lies nothing but remembrance of things past,” but that
line isn’t in the song. Did he improvise the lyric or did I simply mishear it?
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. Rock & roll: It’s still not an
exact science. I can’t even remember the present, much less the past. All I
seem to remember these days is the future . . .

The band looked smart in their
matching grey jackets. Dylan wore a contrasting black outfit with a white hat. I
thought he had on a fancy suit, but a friend, who was watching through
binoculars, noticed that it was made out of a comfortably stretchy, pajamas-like
material. Dylan’s black pants were more like a track suit, with a thick white
stripe running vertically up the side of each leg. His suit-like getup was the
equivalent of those 1970s novelty T-shirts, which were stenciled with the
outline of a tuxedo to fool nearsighted people into thinking that you were
really dressed up.

For the fourth song, “Most Likely
You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” Dylan was back behind the keyboards,
where he stayed for most of the concert. I’ve always liked the song, but I
didn’t think this version was very interesting. It was more sludgy than
rocking, and I didn’t feel like Dylan was really into it.

He sounded more alive, if
romantically tormented, on the next song, “Love Sick,” muttering and
murmuring among clipped chords. “I’m walking through streets that are
dead/Walking with you in my head . . . I see lovers in the meadow/I see
silhouettes in the window . . . and they leave me hanging on to a shadow/I’m
sick of love.” It was quite affecting, and made me think of someone I deeply,
deeply, deeply miss. I forgot that I was in Lake  Elsinore. I was somewhere
else for a moment, somewhere beyond Truth or Consequences. I was glad 
Dylan had been there too, or a place just like it. It made me feel less alone.

Up next was the laid-back and
slinky romantic pop ballad “Spirit on the Water,” which was gently swinging
and pleasantly chirpy. Dylan’s voice became a lot smoother as the show went
on. I don’t know if that’s because he was finally getting warmed up or if he
prefers singing the recent songs. You could make a case for both. At the shows
I’ve seen, his singing usually gets much better after the first few songs. But
tonight it also seemed like his less-inspired performances were during the old
songs early in the set, whereas his singing was generally more fluid and melodic
on the newer tunes.

Of course, that theory was tested
a little on “Summer Days.” It’s a great song from 2001’s “Love and
Theft,” but his words were indecipherable tonight. Actually, Bob’s vocals
didn’t sound bad; they were just very mush-mouthed. The song was fully
rockin’, bluesy and uptempo, with a Chuck Berry feint-&-jab bounce. I thought
about my own summer days, how they were coming to an end soon, before I’d even
had a chance to get out and enjoy them.

Well, today was turning out much
differently. I tried to remember to enjoy the concert while it was still
happening. I felt lucky to see this extra-innings game out in the outfield, in
this unknown town by a real lake, at the foot of a different set of mountains.
It felt like one of my recurring dreams about going to a concert in some
imaginary, semi-realistic-looking place. I worry that someone is going to come
back later and take these memories away, that it will turn out that I really did
dream it all.

Well, if so, it was a fun dream.
Just like the light and breezy folk song “Po’
Boy,” which slipped by easily in the summer night. “Highway 61 Revisited,”
the ninth song of the evening, was a rock-’em, sock-’em contrast with the
sleepy “Po’ Boy.” The band was in really fine form by now, stomping all
over the Biblical and bluesy conundrums of the song as if they were Abraham’s
sacrificial sons and suddenly had a say in the matter. Once again, I forgot I
was in a prosaic ballpark. Instead, I found myself swirling in the mists of
lost, late-night blue highways, making strange deals to save my soul.

That’s a pretty good song that can
make you do that, especially after all these years. Of course, it stays alive in
part because “Highway 61 Revisited” keeps changing disguises. Some nights
it’s more bluesy, other nights it’s more rock & roll.

For some reason, two lines stood
out when Dylan sang the next song, “Nettie Moore,” so I added them to the
ongoing notes I was scribbling down on a piece of paper in the dark: “The
world has gone black before my eyes” and “I’m beginning to believe what
the Scriptures tells.” That song usually gets a good response from the
audience. It’s a mellow ballad from Modern Times that sort of reminds me of
“Lay Lady Lay,” even though it has totally different, wider-ranging subject
matter and doesn’t really sound the same. “Nettie Moore” was weirdly sweet
and restfully wistful, although it felt a little faster and louder than the
album version.

“Thunder on the Mountain” was the
final song of the main set. It’s one of my favorites on Modern Times and
made for a great closer with its dramatic opening and closing flourishes. In
between, Bob lusted openly after Alicia Keys and tripped out about places he’s
lived in and things that have happened and things that might happen. “I’ve
already confessed, no need to confess again,” Dylan sang, cool and wise and
suavely blues rockin’.

As the crew prepared the stage for
Dylan’s eventual return, we walked across the outfield and were able to get
even closer, until I was right up against the railing separating the crowd from
the stage, off to the left side, about 15 feet away from the center of the

We had a great view. For the
three-song encore, Bob Dylan & His Band were joined by special guest Lukas
Nelson. The music was louder and much fuller, with a deeper bass. There were a
lot of fans nearby, but it wasn’t tightly packed. We just kind of sidled in
from the side and walked right up. I was thrilled to be so close.

At one point, Dylan moved up to
the lip of the stage. Folks began screaming at him. I yelled out a request for
“Queen Jane Approximately.” Actually, I just shouted “Queen Jane” over
and over because “Approximately” was too complicated to holler quickly. I
doubt he heard me. But he must have heard somebody. A woman off to my right
wailed something unintelligible, and Dylan said, “We can’t play everything,
but we’re going to play something.”

What? Dylan talked?! He rarely
says anything to the audience, beyond introducing the band. This was the first
extra thing he’s spoken at any of the concerts I’ve seen so far. He must
have really taken a liking to us.

I noticed there was an Academy
Award, a golden Oscar statuette, perched on top of a speaker cabinet on Bob’s
side of the stage (stage left). I assumed it had to be a replica, like you get
from a tourist trap on Hollywood Boulevard, but it’s apparently the actual
Oscar he won for Best Original Song in 2000 for “Things Have Changed,” from
Wonder Boys. I hope he’s got that prize anchored down pretty securely. It’s
not the kind of thing you usually pack away with heavy speaker cabinets and
amplifiers or want banging around in the back of an equipment truck.

I could see other interesting
details, such as when Dylan would give a slight shake of the head to indicate a
musical change or a different emphasis, and how his band members were so attuned
to him, they would change the dynamics within the same breath. Dylan wore a
yellow shirt under his black ensemble, which I hadn’t noticed when I was
sitting in the stands. His fancy-looking suit and tie were largely fake, just
part of the design of the stretchy jacket he was wearing over glorified jogging
pants. People who were far from the stage must have thought Dylan was in a real
suit. I know I had.

It was great to see him grin a
little, as the band cranked it up with guest guitarist Lukas Nelson on “Like a
Rolling Stone.” Bob pumped away at his keyboard, nodding when he wanted Lukas
to take a longer solo. It was a hard rocking and joyous version, even if Dylan
encores with it practically every night.

Sandwiched between the two classic-rock,
Jimi Hendrix–related warhorses of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along
the Watchtower” was a brave new song from his new album, “Jolene.” Its
salty blues-rocking groove kept the energy flowing, and made me happy that Dylan
was throwing a new song into the encore mix. And Nelson ripped it up even more
on “All Along the Watchtower,” giving the band a jolt of volume. As it
turned out, Dylan’s 14-song set featured only six classic oldies. The rest
were new or recent songs. That kicks ass.

It was 10:50, which meant that
Dylan had played about an hour and a half. At 14 songs, it wasn’t as long as
one of his regular 17-song concerts, but it was still a half hour longer than
his co-headlining tour mates Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.

As the crowd started to wander
away and file out of the park, we yelled up to a roadie standing above us on the
high stage, begging him to give us a set list as a souvenir. He was an older guy
who shouted back at us, “They don’t have one — they don’t need one.”

Wow, that’s pretty impressive,
since I know Dylan changes his set list at every show, albeit with certain
patterns on each tour. On this tour, he’s been closing most of the sets with
“Thunder on the Mountain” and encoring with “Like a Rolling Stone” and
“All Along the Watchtower.” There are other songs he likes to start with,
such as “Maggie’s Farm.” But there’s no way, really, to predict what
he’ll do. It’s all about whatever he feels like playing, which makes it so
exciting to see him, decades and decades after he supposedly stopped being
relevant. He’s had his ups and downs, but he’s certainly been much more
prolific and creative in the past 15 years than he was in the previous 15 years.
I’m happy that I’m getting this late-life (his life or mine?) chance to see
Dylan while he’s still relevant. It usually doesn't work out that way with
classic-rock legends.

Loading trucks were parked at the
side of the stage. They’d been there a long time, seemingly waiting for the
show to end before it had even started. Through gaps in the temporary stage, I
could see the crew working backstage to get everything moved out. There was a
bustle of exciting activity, as there always is when there’s an evacuation or
someone’s about to go on the road. I felt the tug of tour momentum. I wanted
to go with them, wherever it was.

Through the slats in the stage and
the fence, it looked like a carny whirlwind. The backstage area was hidden in
shadows, since the stage lights didn’t reach everywhere on the field. Anything
could have been happening back there. Maybe it really was.

With vague regrets, I pulled
myself away from the stage, and my friend and I walked across the lumpy
outfield grass and up through the stands to the exit of the Diamond. As we
headed toward the parking lot, we saw that the same ragtag band of acoustic
street musicians was still making a brash racket in front of the ballpark.

It was pretty dark once we left the lights of Lake  Elsinore behind us,
heading north on Interstate 15. I saw a long shooting star streak across the sky
above the freeway. There were supposed to be some intense meteor showers 
earlier this week, but I didn’t have time to go out into the desert and watch 
them. I wondered if this stray meteor was a lucky sign.

Falling James
The Leaving Trains blog


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