Instantly the night is dark. Orchestra music plays from hanging speakers. Time to cheer and squint into the black box that has become the stage. There is a man in white hat moving into center position.
By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / August 17, 2009
CORPUS CHRISTI — The Bob Dylan Show this summer reaches its south-most destination at 27 degrees 48 minutes north latitude, half past four degrees into the Tropic of Cancer where fat velocities of rotation spin hysterical contradictions between centrifugal ups and centripetal downs.
Or if it’s not about cosmic number tonight why does this latitude trace eastward to Qalandul where southbound priests of Egypt would disembark from lotus-flower boats for a three mile walk to the moon temple of Khmounoun named for the number eight? If mathematics is beside the point why does the latitude of Corpus Christi — named after the body of Christ — line up with that place in Egypt identified by the Catholic Encyclopedia as the residence of the boy Jesus when his family carried him into exile?
Nor is any of this geometry too heavy for tonight’s three stars: Dylan, Willie Nelson, or John Cougar Mellencamp, whose converging chords have capacities to re-curve time and space for our drought and debt saturated landscapes. If ticket-holders hadn’t already calculated the likelihood of some momentary resurrection in cosmic geometries why would any of us have put up dollars to broil under this August sun?
Of course, for the most part, the dollars in question will be advanced courtesy of MasterCard – Visa and reallocated as a leveraged put toward one last long play on the possibilities of a harmonic salvation against the dissonance and entropy of all things coming undone. De-leverage and stay home? That would be like losing faith in daily bread.
Why these three stars chose the first week of August to play five Texas concerts outdoors says something about their heroic confidence, their leather skins, and their complete indifference to the pain of making a living. July Fourth is hard enough down here — that day in mid-summer when Willie Nelson and his good man Poodie (God rest his soul) gathered head-popping tribes of rednecks and hippies at open-sky picnics across Texas, year after year — where you might have exhaled on David Carradine floating by in a long white cloak or kicked over a cow patty passing David Allen Coe in an oasis of grinning mesquite, a blonde on one arm and a brunette on the other.
But August Fifth! Jesus, what a date to pick for playing Corpus Christi outdoors. To the west of Whataburger Field there will be nothing very tall to stand up against the sun as it takes its ever loving time going down. These are the Dog Days for Christ’s sake, named since the beginning of time by those very priests who studied the high heavens at 8-Town until they figured out that when Sirius, the Dog star, came out from behind the sun, it was a visible promise that the river was fixin’ to rise again, thank God.
And so the boys have chosen a dog day to put down for the evening in Corpus Christi harbor, up against the south bank of Tule Lake Channel, a mainline canal for barges of the planetary chemical coast, toting eastward past Whataburger Field and then northward past Dagger Island and Ransom Island as they cut eastward again thru Aransas Pass into the Gulf of Mexico all kinds of fluids drawn up from the arteries of Mother Earth and alchemized into kerosene or feed stocks for Naugahyde, depending. Along this third coast, clear up to Texas City, is where better living thru chemistry begins.
Sales by the chemical giants are down twenty to thirty percent or more and, like other industries these days, chemical profits are being sustained through layoffs. Investors were kind in July to chemco stock prices, but the cost of that form of prosperity means that the labor market around here is a bear, with unemployment on the rise.
Likewise with the other four stops on this tour, whether you’re looking at the energy companies who built the Woodlands, the tech sector that built Dell Diamond, the bankers who anchored Dallas as a regional center for the Federal Reserve just 13 miles from Quick Trip Park in Grand Prairie, or the cotton and cattle enterprises that undergird the stadium facilities at Texas Tech’s Jones AT&T stadium.
Interestingly enough, if you look at some of the breakout hits for tonight’s three stars, such as Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Mellencamp’s “Hurts so Good,” or Nelson’s “Shotgun Willie” album — they all soared into our hearts at well-defined market lows. Riding a three-wave bounce thru Texas, therefore, is a trio of bear-market bards. When the chips are down, these are the fellas we want to hear most.
5pm August 5 at the crossroads of federal highway 37 and state highway 59 — there is no way to be at Whataburger Field on time to catch the warm-up act by the Wiyo’s who say they are from Brooklyn but look like they should be from Kentucky or some Hollywood movie show. Up there on stage with their washboard and dusty clothes you wouldn’t be surprised if they started pitching you some all-purpose elixir to fix everything from charley horse to heartache. They have the perfect attitude for a band that’s prepping for today’s top billers, pitching nothing too heavy to weigh down a grin.
Maybe some day the Wiyo’s will return triumphant as top bills and contribute a poster to the wall of fame that’s collected here at the crossroads Burger King – signed posters from Linda Escobar, D.J. Kane, Kevin Fowler, Ruben Ramos, and other troubadours who have crossed here going in one of four directions, maybe even Southbound on federal 37 toward Whataburger Field.
But since this is mostly an arithmetic excursion so far, the fifth at five thing reminds me that the classic Mayans named the daystar God-5 in honor perhaps of the fifth direction you could always hope to go at any crossroads. In first people rituals on this very continent 5-God is dressed in pants with yellow stripes, the emblematic color of the sun and the third age back when grandmothers — not their grandsons — were in charge.
Yes we are driving toward the beach as they say, but on this coastline your playtime scenery has an industrial backdrop. Signs say Seafood and Scrap Metal. Redbird Lane turns into Railroad Ave. And right over the tracks, Five Points Road turns into Leopard, a Mayan math trick for sure. By the time I get to Whataburger Field the clock over the entrance is a perfect straight-up six, but I’m too busy to do the math right now. There is no music coming out of the place, which means Willie’s roadies are setting up. I do not want to miss those first chords of Whiskey River.
Bottled water first. The layout of this stadium is very similar to last night’s venue at the Dell Diamond, probably because the same designer landed both jobs. So it’s not difficult to find a well-staffed concession stand upon the mezzanine before turning toward the stage. From about first base over to the left field bleachers there is shade thrown down by the stadium. And just like yesterday afternoon, all the shaded seats have been filled up first. The sunny seats over along right field are nearly completely empty.
The infield has been blocked off with some temporary barriers made of plastics that didn’t fall too far from the chemical towers that rise up all around these parts. Just outside second base is a white pyramid-topped canopy for equipment and cameras. Between the canopy and the stage they have laid down some heavy white rubber mats that protect the outfield Astroturf and hide some hefty electrical wires underfoot.
Upon the white mats in center field is the temple of the sun, where worshippers are dedicated and few. It would be easy to get very close to the stage, but like most folks this afternoon I hang back in the shade. What does 98 degrees in the full sun feel like when you’re standing on a rubber mat? At yesterday’s concert I ran into an old, old friend who had a twenty-something son, and we followed the kid right down there onto a quilt in the midst of the sun worshipping crowd, which was larger last night. It turned out not to be as fatal as it sounds although the official temperature was 101.
This evening at short-stop position I take my stand just about the time the sun worshippers start cheering to let everyone know that Willie has stepped into view. Then those chords. Of course the last thing you think about is how Willie’s spotlight right now is the third coast sun. Just like last night he takes the sun shift full in the face and it seems to bother him not a bit.
Something is different tonight about Willie. Usually he plays with a guitar backup. Last night the honor was done by the legendary Ray Benson. Tonight Willie has other familiar members of the family on stage, and a bass player, but there is only one guitar. You’ve probably seen it. It sounds great. My ears are telling me the ticket price has already been returned with interest.
As Willie switches tunes to “Still is Still Moving” we can see the high backs of trucks flying over his head as they move up and down the steel trussed harbor bridge along the east side of Whataburger Field. “La la la,” sings the singer. When Mickey Raphael steps up to blow the harmonica, Willie lifts his right hand to point toward the sky. Cheers fly up from a commotion of ballcaps and shorts.
At a peace concert a few years back, Willie introduced “Beer for my Horses” as the homeland security song, so that’s the way I’ve thought about it ever since. He stops his own singing to let the audience fill in the title lyric, as they did last night. Mothers in cowboy hats walk to and fro. A snuff dipper wearing a bud cap raises a plastic bottle to his lips. An extra large man walks out of the sun crowd wearing an extra large red t-shirt that reads “Big Frank.”
“Well Hello There,” is the way Willie opens the fourth song to immediate cheers. With Paul English hitting the backbeat and Willie pointing to folks here and there, everyone is enjoying the chance to get reacquainted. We’re thinking about last time and next time. T-shirts walk by texting Dynamo or smiling in the image of Jackson Browne.
“Crazy!” is a song that Willie always seems to begin abruptly, and it always produces an abrupt reply. As Willie hits the four notes down, here comes a mother in pale pink boots. Holding mom’s hand is her waist-tall daughter whose boots are pale green. Here are your green shoots people. Before you have time to figure out what to say about the teen boy in the BIMBO shirt, an image of Hendrix reminds your mind to take a deep breath.
Literally, it’s a little too early for that “Night Life” song, because the sun is still pretty much all up in his face, but Willie is in the mood to give Trigger a good workout. “Listen what the blues are playing.” A Motown insider once assured me that when Willie comes to town, the Motown session musicians get front row seats. That’s the first thing he told me after asking me where I was from.
Coming off the field now is a young tall buck in a big black hat, hefty silver buckle, brand new jeans draping down over calf-brown boots holding hands with a wide-eyed doe in boots, cutoff jeans, and purple top. Are my sunglasses dark enough for this? “Thank y’all very much. I love y’all. How y’all doing out there?” is what Willie says next.
As Little Sister Bobbie hits her “Down Yonder” piano solo, Willie tosses his black hat into the crowd, puts the red bandana over his forehead, and tops it with a wide and flat straw hat that someone has tossed up. After asking Sister Bobbie to give the crowd a wave over top of the grand piano, Willie introduces drummer Paul and plays the song about “Me and Paul.” The lyric about almost getting busted in Laredo draws a response from this South Texas crowd, probably because Laredo is a name they hear all the time.
Buck and doe are easing back toward the sun worshippers now. A silver fuel truck flies down the Harbor Bridge followed by a gleaming red pickup riding high on the back of a tow. Willie introduces Paul’s little brother Bobby and Mickey Raphael. I don’t recall seeing Mickey this tan before. He’s been playing the sun shift beside Willie for a few weeks. Coming out of the crowd now is a serious looking fellow in sunglasses and camo pants. He is followed by a couple with a vast age difference. I take the older man to be a grandfather and the younger woman in the Hooks shirt to be his daughter, but I wonder. The main thing is their smiles.
Willie hits stride with “Money Honey” then slows it down for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” A young mom has stepped out of the sun into the shaded area where she waltzes with the boy she carries. The boy climbs down to the turf and starts running a diamond of bases, preparing his imagination for the big leagues. A daddy steps into the shade carrying his daughter dressed in a yellow shirt. The sea breeze kicks up the smell of salt. And I’ll be darned if it’s not buck and doe coming this way again.
Tom T. Hall wrote “Shoeshine Man” declares Willie introducing the novelty tune which seems to have replaced “Kiss Big Booty Goodbye” in this year’s lineup. Willie does the video for the shoeshine song by playing with his web cam and, according to the definitive stillisstillmoving blog, Jackass Johnny Knoxville sez it’s the best video of all time (lower case letters inserted). Little Sister Bobbie kicks up a storm on the pinanny as Mickey and Willie hop onto her musical dust devil. Cheers and whistles swirl all around.
As Willie kicks it up one more notch with “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” the little base runner is swept up by mom for more dancing. But there is only so much will a momma can have over the boy who pushes himself back down to run some more diamonds. Walking through this little drama is a high-contrast image of young Dylan’s face carried forward on a purple t-shirt by a proud teen grrrl walking beside her proud gramps. “Thank you very much,” says Willie, because the applause is getting pretty loud.
Tenderness returns to the fading day with “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground.” A big brother and little sister come off the field side-by-side with some serious responsibilities showing in their faces. Probably they have been given a time limit, maybe even some cash. High above the stage, gulls dive after each other, energized by an updraft. A young momma steps confidently under black hat, platoon leader to passing images of Kid Rock, pink sunglasses, and Bob Marley.
At “On the Road Again” a beverage salesman comes striding out of the crowd, slinging an empty blue bucket. As he turns North along the left field foul line his back draws my eyes toward Willie’s bus parked behind the stage with its painted horse always ready to ride. Time to reload that bucket. On a blanket thrown down near second base, a young family claps in unison. Mommy and baby girl dress in matching outfits.
With Sister Bobbie’s piano striking a melancholy mood, Willie eases into an apology song. “Maybe I didn’t love you quite as.” A young Dad with trimmed beard, gator boots, and beaded belt dances. A youngster’s t-shirt advises us to save water. Arms go up in applause.
“I had a carpal tunnel operation and my doctor told me to go home and shut up,” explains Willie as he sets the stage for the next ditty about being Superman Not. “Too many pain pills, too much pot.” Willie has lost his big straw hat. The bandana he wears now looks more like a head wrap for a wounded man. And Sister Bobbie helps to strike the appropriate musical pose. In the lengthening shadows, a personage in chrome boots and white hat is busy talking up something they’ll probably get from someone they probably know.
“How about a little Hank Williams?” asks Willie, which is not really a question so much as a cue to start hoo-ing and whistling and shouting things like hell yeah as he hops right onto the bayou song. Self, sez I to me, I told you this was going to be a mathematical event. There will be three (count ‘em three) Hank songs. “Hey Good Lookin” might be dedicated to more than half the crowd tonight and Willie is still pointing them out. A woman prettier than gold passes by, talking on her cell phone. The kid runs a diamond around her knees. Time for a little riff from Trigger and before you know it the cosmos has been segued into Hank’s “Big Dog” song.
Okay, dear reader, you are thinking how long is this going to go on? Are you going to report on each and every one of these songs and fashions and dramas as if you were responsible for something like memory itself? Yes ma’am, and without commercial interruption.
So while we were finishing up the triangulation of Hank there was this ACDC t-shirt that I forgot to mention just before all hands went up in applause, which is good a time as any to start “City of New Orleans” while an independent woman in plaid top, shorts, and boots keeps her attention split between the ground, the stairs ahead, and the text message she is sending: IYKWIMAITYD. “I Just Want My Noodles” is what it says on the next t-shirt immediately followed by a grrrl in dayglo sunglass frames and a hint of leopard-skin fabric worked in to the waist line.
The beverage salesman who we lost in the direction of Willie’s bus has returned now walking with a bit of a strain against the weight of the filled bucket that he has strapped across a broad shoulder. He’s handling his job with sweat and good cheer as Willie kicks up the melody for “Pipeliner” and sings about a man who’d walk from Corpus to Wichita Falls.
A double-dating foursome probably with fresh memories of the prom is enjoying a stroll around left field as Willie begins to ease his way off stage. “Thank y’all very much. We love y’all. I hope you’ll stay for John and Bob.” But no Willie show is over until the Gospel tune sings, so he and Sister Bobbie and the family treat us all to “I Saw the Light.” Talk about your understatement. More thanks, more love. The man in the black hat blows kisses. The bleacher folks stand up to clap and cheer. Mickey gives a hearty wave. And cut.
Up on the mezzanine a Skol can hits the concrete floor and a big man reaches down to retrieve it. Big red plastic carts on big plastic wheels are rolled into place as drink stations for the surge between acts. Over by the Whataburger counter the plastic coated picnic tables are keeping themselves occupied as diners wait for their numbers, grab their bags, sit and eat, and make room for the next shift. A woman with a long braid holds out her walkie-talkie with one hand as she pushes down trash with the other. It’s beginning to look like evening. The breeze is strong enough that I set my full water bottle on the floor instead of the railing.
By now the empty seats in right field have some shade moving onto them. I sit down behind folks who have traveled some distance to see Mellencamp mostly. A walkway at ground level is guarded gently by a young woman dressed in the lightly printed pattern of the Whataburger Field staff. She either nods to let you pass or shakes her head to stop you. Near the entrance to the walkway a few women stand on the field wearing USO t-shirts. Here comes a couple holding hands. Dad wears a Grand Funk Railroad t-shirt.
A guy big enough and about the right age to be the real thing wears a t-shirt that says Notre Dame Football. On the field a littler kid kneels, tucks his head down and rolls completely over into a sitting position, rolls again, and again, and again. He comes up smiling each time. When he’s finished, he gets up to pull a cell phone from mom’s back pocket. Mom is having a live conversation with friends. Cheers. Spring-loaded fans jump up and walk quickly onto the field. It’s Mellencamp time and here he comes.
“You guys ready?” asks Mellencamp. “Then someone’s going to have to count to four. One. Two.” His band hits the opening chords for “Little Pink Houses.” Right field is dancing. Hands are high up and clapping. We’re feeling that electric violin. Down on the field grandpa in his yellow shirt tosses grandson two feet to the kid’s father. Catch! The three of them are laughing loud. Dad puts the boy down next to little sister. Dad picks up little sister. And the whole family rocks. All hips are in motion. A surfer cowboy grabs his date for a closer dance. A blonde grrrl and brunette grrrl come strolling hand in hand. “Home of the Free!” Binoculars turn to John.
The violin is smoking hot tonight as it plays the riff for “Paper and Fire.” A young man with light brown dreds strolls out to meet the music. As the violin saws into “Check It Out” hands go up to clap the beat. Mellencamp pitches back pictures of our lives. On the highway of this song we’re all making very similar trips. Check out that Harley Davidson t-shirt passing by. There’s a long message on it that we can’t quite make out at walking speed in fading daylight. Bet it sums something up about living.
Mellencamp’s band leaves him solo with an acoustic guitar explaining how he’s “sicker than a mf*r up here” and how he’d seriously considered canceling tonight’s performance. “But I can’t do it to these people!” Applause and good cheers for that. “Glad you all showed up!” Then he polls the audience for their mood in terms of “old song” or “new.” For the “old song” landslide majority he presents a chorus of “Club Cherry Bomb” a capella – to which they all sing along in remembrance of when “groovin’ was groovin’.”
Having done his best to prepare his fans for something completely new, Mellencamp introduces a dream song that he very recently recorded in a Savannah Georgia Baptist Church. Here come the dredlocks back out. A tall daddy carries his baby girl high up on his shoulders. A pair of toddlers walk unsteadily together, still finding their legs.
Mellencamp begins “Small Town” as an acoustic solo, but the song ends with the band in full electric swing. A man with freshly trimmed gray hair nods and smiles as the Cougar sings about being born and raised in a small town. But when the singer sings about probably dying in a small town, the man emphatically shakes his head not me.
Now it’s the band’s turn to give Mellencamp a little break as they play a violin powered song that haunts the spirit of something Irish, Dixified, and Gospel. A double date of teens walks in formation, smiling and chatting about all kinds of possibilities for this life. A mom strolls hand in hand with her daughter. A big guy with big hands stuffs three empty bottle necks between the fingers of one hand and walks confidently upstairs.
“Scarecrow” pulses through the crowd in the form of chest-thumping full-frontal rock. A woman in pink dress and high heels bounces out along the right foul line, veers into fair play, returns toward first base with a friend. Mellencamp turns around to the drummer and raises his arms. Five cases of beer go rolling toward an ice-cold oasis. From every face a glow of something like I’m proud to be who I am. Nobody who’s not somebody far as you can see.
Power chords for “Troubled Land” introduce Mellencamp’s prayer for peace. Palm trees pose in silhouette against the last horizontal light of the day. Police lead a woman upstairs with a couple of thick deposit bags. In this mood right now, they could probably just ask the audience to pass the cash. A tall thin man with arms outstretched comes floating across the foul line toward the right field steps, lifted up and carried by event staff who sit down with him in the bleachers. Grins and grumbles ripple out.
“If I Die Suddenly” is a resurrection song about leaving it all behind. Even the preacher would be too late to do anything useful. All the necessary arrangements have been taken care of through family and prayer. Stage lights glow purple as twilight darkens the sky into various shades of charcoal blue. Backlit advertisements for K Triple Eye TV and the Gulf Coast Federal Credit Union contribute softening glows. Corpus Christi cops stroll relaxed as five cases of empties get pushed westward for disposal. A fat supply plane passes southbound overhead.
It’s 1-2-3 and all hips are swinging for the crumblin’ wall song. The bass player takes center stage, and he’s just spanking that thing. Then the drummer rolls in with a solo. Lights strobe. There’s hollering all around. Blackberries get lifted up to capture the ecstasy. Whistles. Applause. “This is good!” shouts a Mellencamp fan from the right field bleachers. This is exactly what he came for.
“When I put this band together in the early 70’s it was a garage band,” says Mellencamp after introducing the players. “We went from the garage to the bar and back to the garage. After years of doing that I was surprised to see that you could play on stages where your feet didn’t stick to the floor.” Mellencamp explains how his breakout hit “Hurts So Good” was written as a way to catch the spirit of bars at 5 a.m. But with a voice busted by the August weather in Texas, Mellencamp says that he’d like to throw the vocal part to a fan who has been up front singing along with every note.
“So come on up here. What’s your name?” As Tom Cruise is to Bob Seeger, Mike is to Mellencamp. He grabs the microphone and hits the song like a punching bag, scoring every word. Of course the audience sings the chorus, too, as Mellencamp swoops in for the closing lines. Before Mike leaves the stage, he grabs Mellencamp and lifts him high off his feet! No sticking to the floor tonight.
“Thanks a lot you guys,” says Mellencamp, “good bye,” leaving us Mellen-heads with wide grins. Up on the mezzanine food and drinks are still selling fast. In a kitchen on the south side of Whataburger Field a woman scrubs a pile of steel pans. Nearby a couple of guys open an exhaling cooler and roll out a frosted keg. I grab a fresh bottle of water and get back down to the outfield.
As I take up position in center-left field, the party is in full swing. Under bright ballpark lights, friends gather into a hundred small circles chattering and laughing. Oops, down goes a full cup of beer. Oops, down goes a bottle. Behind the stage three candy red semi trucks rest side by side as their long steel trailers are emptied and refilled by more than a dozen roadies in sportive uniforms who roll cases of equipment one way or the other over a steel plank. After a while the stage empties of workers. A senior operator comes out to check a few final details at the keyboard station.
Instantly the night is dark. Orchestra music plays from hanging speakers. Time to cheer and squint into the black box that has become the stage. There is a man in white hat moving into center position. Time to cheer again. No way to keep up with the rapid intro, a biograph of Dylan that takes us from rock legend, through drug haze, then into Jesus and beyond. But as it (not absolutely) always was, he remains the Columbia recording artist. Cue lights and trilling notes of “Watching the River Flow.”
Dylan holds the fat neck of his guitar up like in the promo pics. Makes me think of the way you hold a shotgun and what Woodie Guthrie wrote on his own guitar. And if you read the reports after every ballpark show you can tell it begins to work pretty quickly. Also, in the context of today’s show, Dylan’s opening guitar work feels like a kind of tribute to Willie Nelson’s guitar style with alternating riffs and hard-scrubbed chords.
“Don’t Think Twice” was the song that pulled me into Dylan way back when I was skinny and lovesick. It’s a nice surprise to hear it as song number two. Magically the electric bass has been replaced with a full-sized acoustic. Down here among the ticketholders a woman with a sweet smile and twinkling eyes holds up two cups of foaming beer, pauses, looks around. Maybe she’s really lost? So many two’s all at once. Time for this party to double down.
With a shot from the drums that startles you into thinking explosion, the band hits the wailing chords of “Till I Fell in Love with You.” Dylan begins at the keyboards downstage right, facing three axemen stage left in black suits and hats. The fifth black-suited player sits upstage right behind a pedal slide. Dylan seems to be getting the feel of the stage, making eye contact with players. Then he turns to grab a well-placed harmonica and walks to center stage for a solo. On his pants, the outseam is covered by a broad yellow stripe that matches his yellow shirt. Could be a ritual Mayan dressing for a ceremony at high noon.
When the song feels done Dylan nods to the bass player and leader of the band — a familiar face to old fans of Saturday Night Live. The bass player cues the drummer, and the boys bring the thing to a stop. In the song the singer was “Dixie Bound.” Now the song is over, and look who’s here.
It’s a soft-pitch melody up next, with the yellow-breasted poet’s jacket unbuttoned for “a whoppin’ good time.” Last night The Vocalist stressed the lyrics a little more at that “over the hill” allegation. Tonight the emphasis shifts to the keyboard and the tall, acoustic bass. Cellphones are up and streaming rows of tiny screens over ballcaps and beer. Jupiter is chasing the moon up over the harbor bridge leaving plenty of clearance for more chemical trucks to go barreling down westward toward Laguna Madre.
Whistles come flying into the stage from various points. Someone tosses off a light scream. Dylan and the boys reply with a rollickin Muddy Waters takeoff, “and I tumbled, I cried the whole night long.” The gulf breeze offers a gusty supercharge. A southbound airplane blinks high overhead. Drum and bass beat CPR into each and every heart.
For me, Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues #2” is a reminder of Jody Payne who for years sang the Merle Haggard original during Willie Nelson concerts. The Dylan reply has a sing-song rhythm that the crowd enjoys, hands up, clapping. For his part, The Vocalist is tossing the notes back and forth from guttural to nasal, playing with the range of possibilities. A few popcorn clouds wave at the Sturgeon Moon. A couple giggles together as they hold up a Willie Doll that can’t help but sway to the happy feel of things. I hear Payne is in retirement today enjoying time with his son, Waylon. Still, we missed him this evening at 6:15 or thereabouts.
Before Dylan pitches “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” he steps back in the dark, gives his arms a good stretch, and grabs a drink. Another tanker truck comes wheeling down the harbor bridge, shining its stainless steel body back at the moon. At the keyboard, Dylan turns and kicks to one side and then to the other. But don’t let that song and dance act fool you too much, because the serious side of Dylan’s art is just now kickin’ in.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” is a song you can lay back and enjoy a little more if it doesn’t catch you live taking notes. People can’t help but grin at you. They even start walking a little closer to you in the moonlight just so you can be sure to see they’re on the side that’s grinning. “With great lawyers and scholars,” sings the man with the thin mustache, pouring a little pepper onto your paranoia. Indeed you miss plenty and most of the time. But you’re no quitter, are you — dum, dum, dum, dum — Mr. Jones? When the song is finally over, I give it a four-finger whistle. Sportsmanship.
At last night’s show in Round Rock, “Highway 61” was the apex of the arc as it is tonight, even without the amazing center-stage guitar work of Charlie Sexton or the amusing lyrical antics of the vocalist. There’s just a way the song comes together. Dylan enjoys jamming the song on the keyboard, and the guitars enjoy answering him. Then the guitars start answering each other. Before you know it there is a full blown conversation going on between the drummer and the bass player, too. Everybody has something to say. The lighting crew starts mixing in a few tricks and pretty soon the Bob Dylan Show is taking us all down for a ride.
In the darkness before “Nettie Moore,” Dylan steps back to take a sip. The song is such a sweet and sad thing. The violin sounds perfect for it, and Dylan seems to place special emphasis on the lines, “I loved you then, and ever shall.” Meanwhile, the audience has divided itself in half between those who have inched ever forward and those who have stepped back. In the gap between them a 12-foot ring of rubber mat.
“Thunder on the Mountain” is a wide-ranging plaint. You’ve got the man, the woman, and the world all on the verge of some critical swerve. The beat is ferocious as a freight train. The crew up on stage is stoking the engine hotter than an August night with all the seriousness and concentration they can sustain. It’s like one little cotter pin could spring out of joint and the whole 46-box-car operation would come crushing down upon us all. The front rail audience is completely transfixed. It’s like they are just holding on for dear life. Then the grand conductor gives a quick nod to the leader of the band and the whole damn weight of things is braked to a smooth but quick stop.
When the band goes off-stage I wonder if they’ll come back for an encore. There is a hearty group of folks who are into the show, and they are trying to put up a ruckus, but they’ve been beered and beaten by the heat for about five hours, so it’s not clear they have much left inside to wring out. By rock concert standards, their cries for more would be deniable. But after a polite interlude the band does come back. Dylan’s return gait is loose and lanky. He seems to gesture something merciful with his body before returning to work.
The encore begins with Dylan’s signature song, the one that branded a glorious generation of rolling stones. At the keyboard, Dylan reminds us of Al Kooper’s licks. On the line — “How does it feel?” — the stage lights cast a flashing fishnet pattern over the near crowd. On the black backdrop is a lighted image of the new Dylan logo, an eye of Horus crowned as feathered serpent. Mayan math connected to Egyptian is what I say. And the all seeing stagemaster himself seems to signal something significant as his hand flies up from the keyboard to touch cheek, back of neck, and then quickly back down.
The seven-note riff for “Jolene” sashays through the sky. “Baby I’m the King,” declares the triumphant showman, “and you’re the Queen.” Dylan twists sideways for one more flash of that yellow stripe. A final, faint, and seedy whiff of freedom passes through the crowd. “Okay, git,” says a short man to a short woman as they turn toward the parking lot. Wednesday night is coming to a close.
“Thank you, friends,” says Dylan before introducing the four boys in the band. “There must be some kind of way out of here,” is not exactly what we hear next, but we can tell that’s what the song is supposed to be. A moth catches the spotlight, zigs toward Dylan’s white hat, then zooms up offstage. As the band hammers out the notes of this last song, Dylan pulls a hand up, wipes some of that (officially) 82 percent humidity from the back of his neck, pulls the other hand up, wipes the other side. Toward the Green Corn Moon a wispy cloud approaches in sickle form, making a perfect harvest. Cut.
“None of them along the line know what any,” Dylan stops, catches the word “any,” repeats it, punctuates the delivery of the next three words – “of . . . it . . . is” — and then grinds out a deep growl for all it is “wo-oo-rr-rr-th!” Music slams shut, lights go down. In the dark, Dylan assembles the band into two rows, then takes the front and center position. Lights up, Dylan raises his hands out above his elbows in a gesture that looks like a kind of blessing.
A dedicated pack of stage huggers want to go for one more encore, but it is no use. As the true few cheer and whistle (what good would it do to stomp?) the mostly many turn toward home. Before you know it, the band has disappeared, the crowd is up and out of Whataburger Field, and two dozen yellow-shirted event staffers swarm the brightly-lit outfield, picking up trash, breaking down settings, getting the ballpark ready for Friday night’s game against the Midland RockHounds.
“Bye Bye Bob,” says a mom sadly to no one in particular as she hauls an over-stuffed bag of supplies for her gaggle of grrrls that she leads to the steps.
“I love him!” rejoins one of the grrrls, barely teenaged, as security discreetly herds us out.
Past the blinking ATM machine and a pile of empty beer cartons we step off the field and up to the mezzanine where it’s nothing now but stragglers and cleanup crew.
“Last call for Willie Nelson t-shirts,” hollers a weary hawker. Next door over at the Dylan-Mellencamp booth the last sales of the evening are being resized. A pony-tailed blonde grandmother points to the next size in the Dylan ’63 t-shirt as a mom next to her negotiates with two daughters over which size purple Dylan T the girls are going to get.
Down the front steps, ticket takers stand their posts, retooled now into exit greeters. Three cops joke around in the street until the long black bus is ready to roll outbound with a smooth left turn.