Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, the 2005 Ballpark Tour 7/8/06 (A really great review by Jason Toons)


Live: Bob Dylan w/Willie Nelson

GMC Stadium, Sauget, IL: 8 July

Live Review by Jason Toon
Sauget, Illinois (pop. 249) is a toxic sump of chemical plants and strip clubs just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis, an ugly smear of scrubland with the unofficial motto “when you can taste the air, you know you’re there.” But the Sauget family’s misbegotten fiefdom owns a few small pieces of musical notoriety. Uncle Tupelo immortalized it in “Sauget Wind” with lines like “Industrial wind/ It blows from the west/ It’ll burn out your eyes/ And suck out your breath,” Mötörhead pays an annual visit to the 24-hour metal dive Pop’s, and earlier this month a couple of American treasures– Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson– passed through town.   

The ersatz retro ballpark GMC Stadium (built 2001) is an amenable enough setting for this titanic double-bill: the grass green, the sky big, and the scale much more human than any mammoth suburban amphitheatre. But the gameday staff has a lot to learn about putting on a big show. As we sat and sweated in an eternal line of cars waiting to park, the opening chords of “Whiskey River” drifted across the gravel. Hapless teen attendants wiggled orange flags, quivering in the face of the vehicular chaos. Openers the Greencards came and went, and we missed precious minutes of a show that could be Willie’s last trip to these parts.

Inside at last, we crammed in among the crowd on the outfield grass as Willie and family worked through a medley that included “Crazy” and “Night Life”. The man himself, onstage roughly in centerfield, was dwarfed by an enormous Texas flag, so huge it was scored with wind-venting slices to keep it from billowing up like a sail and carrying the whole show away. But he was unmistakable, in a sleeveless black tee and white cowboy hat. As the medley ended, he frisbeed the hat across the upstretched hands of the apeshit crowd. (He repeated that move twice more, replacing the hats each time, before tying on the iconic red bandanna for the finale.)

Apparently we’d arrived just in time for Willie’s first break. He stepped back and strummed as his slouch-hatted son Lucas took a vocal turn for “There’s Flooding Down in Texas,” longtime guitarist Jody Payne sang Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” and “Little Sister Bobbie” Nelson got her moment with a piano-led instrumental, “Down Yonder.” They don’t call the band Family for strictly genetic reasons; they were flawlessly empathetic players, so good together that they almost did a disservice to their own skills as individuals. But they weren’t who we came to see.

Willie stepped back up to the mic, his effortless charm sending a charge of rapture through the crowd. What makes this wiry little Texan so compelling? He’s old, you can tell that even from way back at second base. But his voice is still strong and he’s in full melodic and emotional command of it. He’s a great songwriter but not a self-centered one, mixing his own staggering songbook– “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, “On The Road Again”– with the covers you’d expect (“Always On My Mind”, “Georgia”, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”) and some you wouldn’t (“The Harder They Come”, which makes a strong case for his seemingly questionable reggae album coming this summer). And his jazz-inflected guitar leads were as sensitive as ever.

But beyond his musical magnetism, Nelson deals in a comfortably democratic, fully American kind of populism almost totally lacking in mainstream pop culture today, country or otherwise. He’s a legend and all that, but that pompous designation doesn’t really get at his appeal. Punkoids with mohawks, yuppies with ponytails, and spaced-out hippies alike shed their self-consciousness. The mood was unlike any show this size that I’ve ever seen. Under a bombastic Lone Star banner, this Kucinich supporter embodied what it really means to be a uniter, not a divider. He closed with a new song, a 12-bar rocker that kicked off with the lines “Too many pain pills, too much pot/ Trying to be something that I’m not/ I’m not Superman.” It was all over too soon.

After all that, even Bob Dylan seemed a bit of an anticlimax. He started with a chugging, rockabillyish version of “Alone With You” from Nashville Skyline, and it was clear this is Bob-o-matic For the People. He stood at a little keyboard in a spangled black cowboy suit and white cowboy hat, and his band played competent if predictable rootsy arrangements aimed at the House of Blues types. We won’t be hearing any rambling soliloquies or tortured explorations of “Masters of War” tonight. At first the simple, meaty country-rock was satisfying, but after a few songs, it just felt monotonous. Where all of Willie’s songs felt shorter than the familiar recordings, these versions all rambled on and on, in a dull brown haze of seventh chords and steel guitar solos.

Another big problem, too: Dylan’s voice is ravaged, limited to a low growl and cracking in all the wrong spots. The misguided old knock against Bob– that he “can’t sing”– has sadly come true. The soaring melodies of “Positively 4th Street”, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, and the encore “Like a Rolling Stone” were gone, replaced by gravelly bursts of speak-singing á la Lou Reed. And the slower ones were almost embarrassing to hear, not helped by a mix that set his voice twice as loud as the rest of the band combined.

But, but…why was it so hard to stop watching? Why don’t we want to leave? His unpredictable reverse charisma has gotten the better of our cynicism. It was like he didn’t even know we were there– he didn’t directly address the crowd until the encore, for a perfunctory thank you and band introduction– but he was playing us just the same, as inscrutable and riveting as ever.

Willie Nelson was up there for everybody, speaking a common language, his own bottomless talent drawing from the raw humor and emotion of working-class experience. Try as he might to please the crowd in his sequinned outfit, Bob Dylan couldn’t help but be a glorious weirdo, up there for himself, the iconoclast chasing his own visions. We still need both. The pity is that they won’t be around forever.

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