Clueless In Portland: the Bob Dylan and John Mellancamp Concert at Edgefield, August 29th
It was finally dark in Troutdale, Oregon, the lights went down and an off stage announcers voice introduced the Dylan band by concluding in a tongue and cheek manner “often written off as a has been.” Bob Dylan had brought his endless traveling minstrel show to three sold out nights in the Portland area, two of them at the McMenamin’s crown jewel resort in Troutdale, a suburb of Portland.
Brian and Mike McMenamin are not well known below the Oregon border but in their home state and in Washington they are household names synonomous with microbrews, fun, music, hospitality and extraordinary brewpubs. Edgefield is the old poor farm and it boasts a winery , a distillary, a brewery and a nine hole golf course with plenty of watering holes along the way. The founder/brothers are rabid Deadheads and bluegrass fans and put on music events at most of their 200 establishments in the Northwest. Edgefield boasts a 5,000 person amplitheather that consists of many lawn seating and some picnic tables back by the resort. Although it was sold out, it felt like there were 500 people on the lawn. It’s a terrific place to see and hear music with great sightlines, short lines for food and restrooms. The mood last night was expectant, excited and clearly people were ready to see something special if not historic.
I should add that my brother-in-law, Joe Vondrak, has been the Mcmenamin’s contractor since they conceived of this chain back in their college days in the sixties.
John Mellencamp gave the crowd what they expected from these legendary bands – music that sounded close if not exactly like the records. Mellencamp and his crack rock band opened with Little Pink Houses and moved into Paper in Fire, and favorite anthems like Check it Out, Cherry Bomb and Small Town. Kenny Arnoff is no longer behind the drums but his band and long time fiddle player sound like they’ve played together for years and didn’t miss a beat. Mellencamp moved into some songs from his new highly acclaimed T-Bone Burnett record and while sounding sparcer and more atmospheric than his usual anthems they fit in well with the set list and engaged the fans. Songs including Don’t Need This Body, If I Die Sudden, and Save Some Time to Dream sounded terrific, and as some reviews have mentioned “spooky” next to the standards like Rain on The Scarecrow, and John’s other rockers. Mellencamp suffered a heart attack from years of chain smoking and has emerged energized, fit and dosen’t seem to have skipped a beat. Half way through his set, Mellencamp uttered his one sentence of the night: “People say I talk too much, so I’m I’m not talking tonight.” He concluded with Crumblin’ Down and the Authority Song which left the crowd begging for more. Because Edgefield has an agreement with their neighbors, Mellencamp didn’t come back out for an encore which was almost expected.
After a brief intemission, Dylan’s band was announced and they came out smoking, playing the familiar Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat moving swiftly into another timeless oldie, Don ‘t Think Twice, It’s Alright. The band members were all dressed in white with black shirts. Dylan was all in black with his now familiar river boat gambler black hat playing guitar. The song romped at top speeds taking sudden turns and slowing down with Charlie Sexton and Dylan trading licks and then speeding back up again. Much has been said about Dylan’s change of sets each night and redoing the tempos and cord structures on his signature songs. The truth is that after seven or more years putting on 100 or more shows a year at rodeos, auditoriums, baseball fields and odd venues, his band could play Mylie Cyrus songs and make them sound rootsy and ancient.
I got to thinking about all the times I’ve seen Bob Dylan over the years. Having grown up in Berkeley, Bob Dylan wasn’t just a singer or an icon, he was the person who defined our generation, who set the pace. The Beatles, Kesey, the Beats, the other great bands like the Dead and most folk rock bands stole from the best. It’s amazing that Dylan once was called “Judas” for forsaking acoustic music in favor or what was then called “rock music.” His first backup band of choice was the Butterfield Blues Band at Newport and as I sat listening to his latest band, I was thinking that he may now be giving Paul Butterfield a run for his money with one, if not the most, on fire blues bands of all time. Stu Kimbell provides the base rhythm that allows Sexton to riff in and out of songs with stinging bottleneck guitar licks…often kneeling on one knee before Dylan on organ trading licks and extolling the band to new heights. Donnie Herron adds all the florishes on songs like I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Tringg to Get to Heaven, Blind Willie McTell and Thunder on the Mountain playing banjo, mandolin and pedal steel guitar. Dylan’s voice has changed alot and he now sounds like his musical heroes, a venerable person who has seen and done it all. George Recile was terrific on drums. I saw Dylan’s religious tour with Jim Keltner on drums and this band could hold its own with most of Dylans various backup bands. Bob drove his band beyond the 9:30 curfew and finished up with two great encores: one realitively new song and one considered his best: Joline and Like a Rolling Stone. Again the tempos were there but Dylan sang behind the beat and it was near impossible for the crowd to sing along which was a disappointment for many of those who have not kept pace with Dylan over the years.
This was a crowd who while somewhat hip organic Oregonians, clearly came for the hits, for the memories. When it was clear that Bob and his band weren’t going to deliver nostalgia but instead a new streamline locomotive, people began streaming for the gates. Those that stayed understood that his music was different but still engaging. A critic once said to me that Dylan’s bootlegged cuts and outtakes were better than most musician’s legacy songs – including John Mellencamp.
I’ll conclude with a couple of other observations. This was a weekend with Glenn Beck and Al Shaprton were holding opposing rallies in Washington DC – ironically focused on what the media called “highjacking the civil rights movement.” It was also the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The night before Dylan had sung When the Levee Breaks, a 1929 Kansas Joe McCoy song…it could have been about New Orleans or Pakistan or it could have been something Bob liked and played on his Sirus radio show. Last night he played High Water (for Charley Patton). While Bob is not in Washington DC singing and lecturing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he is out in the suburbs and backwater towns of the United States getting his message across. Although in 1969 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley you never would have seen a fight break out at a Dylan concert as it did during the first song in the Mellencamp set. The Times They Are A Changin’
Bob was on the road today – a night off – on his way to Missoula Montana. For a man who didn’t say very much during his performance and let his music do the talking, Bob Dylan clearly still has a lot to say. Even to fans who are clueless and deaf to his messages in a new, updated format.