Bob Dylan – Principal Park (Des Moines, IA)
As my boyhood hero Ernie Banks liked to say, “Let’s play two today!” With co-headliners Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson offering the musical equivalent of a doubleheader, and a warmup set by Hot Club Of Cowtown serving as batting practice, this concert was like Rolling Thunder on the Field of Dreams. Starting in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the late-summer tour through minor-league parks brought major-league entertainment to smaller cities across the nation’s heartland.
The two Hall of Famers — Dylan in the rock hall and Nelson in country’s — have long been friends and mutual admirers, kindred spirits. In fact, it was an offhand remark by the former at Live Aid that inspired the latter to start Farm Aid, a tradition that had particular resonance for this evening’s crowd in predominantly rural Iowa. Yet as far as performers relating to their audience, the inscrutably opaque Dylan and the transparently open-hearted Nelson would seem to be poles apart. There appeared to be plenty of Willie fans there who just didn’t “get” Dylan, in a park that was perhaps a third full.
No matter. Those who were there and open-eared had a grand slam of a Saturday night at Principal Park, home of the Triple A Iowa Cubs. (It was known as Sec Taylor Stadium until midseason.) You couldn’t beat the setting: stage set against the right field wall; audience thronged in front, sprawled on blankets in center field or seated in the box seats way across the infield (the best seats for baseball were the poorest for music). As the evening progressed, the temperature dipped into the low 60s, anticipating the harvest season to come, and a full moon rose behind the band.
Dylan’s 90-minute set included hits (“Highway 61 Revisited”, “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall”), curve balls (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, the rarely performed “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”), and material from the most recent Love And Theft album in equal measure. The mix remained about the same throughout the tour, though the individual selections varied each night, as Dylan surveyed his songbook.
On this night, the set-opening “Maggie’s Farm” seemed perfect for Iowa, while the lilt of “Moonlight” was particularly evocative. With mainstay multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell continuing to anchor Dylan’s road-tested quartet, and with Dylan playing electric piano as he has on recent tours, the blistering “Lonesome Day Blues” could have roared just as easily down the Highway 61 album, while the renewal of “Hard Rain” found a man in his 60s trying to invest meaning in a song he wrote in his early 20s. For a Dylan fan, the only problem with the evening was that the co-headliner billing meant for a comparatively short set, a dozen songs before the encores, with fewer surprises than on recent visits.
Yet no one would have wanted to hear less of Willie, plainly the tour’s MVP. He returned to the stage during Dylan’s set for a duet on “Heartland”, and guested with Hot Club during their opening set on “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”. Though his own performance has become as ritualized as a church service over the decades, on this tour he’s varying the catechism. In an election-year swing (with Willie for President posters for sale), he opened not with “Whiskey River” but with “Livin’ In The Promised Land”, as an American flag unfurled behind him while he sang of a country in which there is “room for everyone.”
Backing him was a stripped-down, unplugged version of the Family, more of a family than ever with Willie’s sons Michael on percussion and Lucas on guitar, sister Bobbie on piano, and the father-and-son percussion team of Paul and Billy English. Highlights included the recent “Still Is Still Moving To Me”, the Townes Van Zandt classic “Pancho & Lefty” and the deep blues of “Texas Flood”, with Lucas Nelson’s guitar paying homage to the legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Most of the arrangements were spare, giving the music plenty of room to breathe. Recently sidelined by carpal tunnel syndrome, Willie played less guitar than usual, but he was in good voice and great spirits.
Where a lesser act would have found it tough to make an impression leading off before such heavy hitters, Hot Club made plenty of fans with its Django-meets-Bob Wills dance fare. Violinist Elana Fremerman (who would later join Dylan for “Floater”) proved equally adept playing cattle-call fiddle and supper-club chanteuse, and the sprightly arrangements for slap bass and hollow-bodied guitar earned the trio a warm reception on an unseasonably cool summer’s night.
As Ernie used to say (or was it Jack Brickhouse?), “You can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.” In an election year, you couldn’t ask for a more appropriate celebration of what it means to be an American.