Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hard Rain Didn't Fall: One Fan’s Take on Dylan’s Duluth Show (Part 1)

Dylan’s AmericanaramA Tour in Bayfront Festival Park

The first big story here was the weather. The forecast was rain, with 60% chance of thunderstorms. Monday's meteorologists predicted 50% chance of storms but Tuesday morning’s paper increased the odds, and dampened a lot of enthusiasm. We’d picked up disposable ponchos at Wal-Mart for a $1.39 each, just in case, but this being an outdoor concert in an open field we weren’t real keen on lightning.

I drove home from the office shortly after noon, in a steady rain, but when I reached our home in Munger it had trickled to a marginal sprinkle. No sign of sun or blue skies here, but the satellite map looked very promising. At 11:00 a.m. it seemed like an H-shaped pattern with Duluth receiving the central cross bar, a narrow band of potential storms that would be soon past and all clear behind except a few scattered puffs.

In short, by mid-afternoon I was feeling a measure of optimism. (I’m a natural optimism, so I don’t always trust my feelings in these matters.) As it turned out, by the time Dylan was on stage the sky had opened and stars were twinkling bright, not even a hint of haze.

The gates opened at 4:30 and a very long line snaked around into an adjacent parking lot and back. They weren’t strip searching anyone so the crowd meandered in fairly efficiently as sunlight filtered through the shrouded sky. The Richard Thompson Trio was scheduled to kick things off at 5:30 and the time moved swiftly to that first set.

As I circulated the grounds and engaged people in conversation I found it interesting that many in attendance were there not necessarily for Dylan but for these other groups. Jeff Frey of Jeff Frey Photography said he wanted to see The Richard Thompson Trio. A local dentist said My Morning Jacket was his favorite group and that he had all their albums. There were at least a couple Wilco fans I spoke with who were looking forward to seeing Jeff Tweedy’s team shine. And then there were the many who arrived later and later in the evening because their only interest was to witness a legend perform, and perform he did.

When The Richard Thompson Trio opened, they reminded me a little of the rockabilly group David Allen and the Guilty Men who opened Dylan’s Duluth concert at the DECC in 1998. Not that they created the same sound, but they definitely created the same energy with a tight set that hit like a cannon shot and got you ready for more. Thomspon’s first comment to the crowd was, “How’d youd get off work so early?”

The pauses between sets were quite efficient. You could see a professional structure to the show with good execution as regards the details. I had slipped down to the area where the tour buses came in and watched as Dylan’s bus backed into a slot between the others behind the stage. I’d written a little note I hoped could be passed inside. The guards were trained to direct me to the “man-in-charge” who clearly carried the responsibilities for these practical details. “No notes,” he said. (I once did a drawing for one of the Beach Boys in 1973, and he came out of the back to let me hand it to him alongside the stage.) Nevertheless, I followed “the man” as he went to give instructions to the local police as regards the exit strategy. He said, “His last song will be All Along the Watchtower. He’ll exit the stage, then come back on for one last song. When he plays that you get ready because he’ll head straight for the bus and you’ll open the gate.” He could tell from their expressions that they weren’t certain what All Along the Watchtower was, and explained that wasn’t necessary. He’ll leave the stage, come back on and “four minutes later you need to be ready.”

My Morning Jacket is a much younger group with an impressive range. The five-piece band opened with a gentle acoustic tune. Like The Richard Thompson Trio they played with virtuosity. Once the acoustic was laid aside for a serious electric they produced some big sound with many orchestrated transitions from one song to the next occasionally using controlled feedback to feed into the next song.

As My Morning Jacket played on the sun hid its face and the threat of rain got its way to produce a very light rain or heavy sprinkle, depending on whether you saw the glass half empty or full. My Wal-Mart poncho came in handy. Fortunately the drizzle subsided quickly (five minutes or less) and a rainbow soon emerged, the pot of gold out on the bay behind Dylan’s bus. A sign? Indeed.

Wilco followed, opening with a Velvet Underground cover… Who Loves the Sun. Very nicely done, too. Last year Jeff Tweedy and company were handed the Key to the City by Mayor Ness, so there was a context when Tweedy exclaimed, “It’s good to be home.” Like My Morning Jacket, Wilco offered up an exuberant 75 minute set.

Personally, these longer sets may have been exceptional, but they prolonged the wait for why many were gathered here, to experience Dylan’s presence. It may be that the extra padding had other purposes.

Alan Sparhawk reads the words to Wreck, Jeff Tweedy left on guitar.
Up till Dylan’s performance the highlight of the evening came when Low, a local band with an international fan base (Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker), joined Wilco to sing Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, accompanied by Richard Thompson. This is a seriously good song written about a tragic event within memory of most Northlanders here. Lightfoot is a peer of Dylan whom Dylan respects so the intersection of song, songwriter, Northland history and local singer made for a powerful stimulant as I stood tight in close to the stage with an energized crowd.

When Wilco completed its set, the dark stage was re-arranged and a sense of quiet anticipation rippled through the crowd which streamed into an increasingly crowded “pit” in front of the stage, filling every vacancy and void with vibrant human flesh.

TO BE CONTINUED (This Weekend)

Can’t wait for the details? See a summary of the Dylan set at
Photos courtesy various friends with cell phones. 

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