Bob Dylan played in Durham Tuesday night, and I sure do wish we could show you pictures of him. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to photograph his set, although we did get pictures of opening acts Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. So check the photo gallery, and here's the review:
By David Menconi
DURHAM -- Truly, Bob Dylan works in mysterious ways. There are times when those ways are simple for us lesser mortals to follow, the shows where he seems relatively lucid and intelligible. And there are times when those ways are hard to fathom -- such as Tuesday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, when Dylan seemed to be coming from a universe very much his own.
Nowadays, Dylan doesn't "sing" so much as rasp in a painful croak that's almost impossible to understand, turning his shows into communal games of "Name That Tune." But the key to enjoying Dylan in this mode is to quit worrying about which song he's playing and just try to tune in on his frequency.
Of course, finding that frequency can feel like trying to find a far-away AM station on a scratchy old radio. Once you lock in, however, it's immensely rewarding.
From that perspective, Tuesday night's show felt like listening to a crazy old guy giving a statement to the authorities about a bizarre incident he alone had witnessed. Rather than conventional songs, he offered up stream-of-consciousness rants backed up by a crack band. The guitars' menacing tones rang out like threats in the dark, leading to questions: Who? Where? Why?
For answers, we never learned exactly what happened. Dylan's primal-scream testimony did, however, convey plenty about how it felt. And for those willing to hang in there with him, the show had at least one genius moment of transcendence in "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum."
Originally released on Sept. 11, 2001, "Tweedle Dee" is one of the spookiest songs in the Dylan catalog. It was stunning Tuesday night.
"Tweedle-dee Dee is a lowdown, sorry old man/Tweedle-dee Dum, he'll stab you where you stand," Dylan howled as the guitars wailed like sirens, the drummer's rifle-shot backbeat portending a most awful doom. It was thrilling, and also more than a little creepy.
Other highlights included "Highway 61 Revisited," and a cutting "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" that really did seem to bleed. Mostly, though, it was fascinating to listen to the man jabber and get all over that line between brilliant and crazy. Judging by how many people were streaming out a half-hour into Dylan's set, much of the crowd seemed to feel it was closer to the latter than the former.
At least those folks got to see a couple of other fine acts before Dylan. Following a short opening set by the Wiyos, Willie Nelson took the stage while the sun was still high in the sky. He performed like a man who long ago became accustomed to playing for not-terribly-attentive party crowds.
There was a path-of-least resistance watercourse vibe to Nelson's 22-song set, in which he trod a well-worn path of his best-known songs. "On the Road Again," "Always on My Mind" and the inevitable "Whiskey River" are songs you know by heart whether you want to or not, and Nelson was happy to serve them up.
Nelson will never be mistaken for Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page as a guitarist, and he really doesn't sing so much as talk slow. But none of that mattered a bit. One doesn't listen to a Nelson performance so much as bask in the warm glow of his weathered, beatific countenance. He can still light up a room, even if that room is a baseball park in broad daylight. Icons like that are rare.
Speaking of which, there was a true overload of iconography at the beginning of John Mellencamp's middle set. Standing in the outfield of a baseball park, surrounded by hot dogs and listening to him play "Pink Houses," I felt as if a Chevy truck ad was about to break out.
Still, Mellencamp's performance was more than solid, and a reminder that his mid-'80s prime was about the best that mainstream rock of that period had to offer. He's back to playing roots-rock twang with a metallic roar, a much better fit than some of his faux-soul moves of old.
We could have done without some of the new songs, which were fine but no big whoop. On the plus side, Mellencamp did right by his 1987 signature "The Lonesome Jubilee" with "Paper in Fire," "Check It Out" and "Cherry Bomb."
The only thing needed to complete the all-American image would have been an apple pie.
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