With only four acts, and one stage (in a soccer stadium), AmericanramA was a far cry from festivals, even the traveling ones, that have been insinuating themselves on the music industry these days. But with an indisputable legend on the top line and ample time allocated for the big name support, it seemed too good to pass up, especially as it rolled through Bridgeview's Toyota Park, only a few short miles from my house.
Regrettably, we arrived too late to catch Richard Thompson Trio, but received enthusiastic reviews from the early crew. Upon arrival, I learned that my seats in section B3 didn't exist and was offered an exchange for my choice of three sections, one of which was the General Admission "pit" section in front of the stage. A quick survey of the pretty sparsely populated stands indicated that the GA section actually afforded the most flexibility, and within moments were headed up front to catch My Morning Jacket.
Though not a band built for full daylight sets, Jim James led the band through a pattern of crunchy rockers and more slow and soulful pieces with his typical theatrics, donning a brightly colored poncho and blowing the sax on "Wordless Chorus".
My Morning Jacket
The Dark, Circuital, Magheeta, Golden, Slow Slow Tune, Masterplan, I'm Amazed, Victory Dance, Wordless Chorus, Phone Went West, One Big Holiday
James made an ovation to the crowd with a description of a long walk taken along Chicago's glorious lakefront, but it was Wilco who made the truly deep connection with the audience -- and they did it just by showing up. Their Chicago shows have become events in and of themselves, the diehards suitably charged for another interesting stage and setup in a series of historic hometown gigs which have covered a ton of ground in size and spectacle.
What struck me most about both the MMJ and Wilco sets, especially presented as set up for Dylan, was that artfully rendered, American rock music is in happily capable hands. Neither band was touring behind a new release but both were able to fill sets with career spanning highlights, with plenty more left on the shelf at the end of the night. Wilco even reached back all the way to their first album AM, for a banjo driven version of "That's Not The Issue".
At the Window Sad and Lonely, When the Roses Bloom Again, What Light, Misunderstood, Poor Places, Art of Almost, Sloth$, California Stars$, That's Not the Issue$, Hummingbird, Impossible Germany, Cinnamon Girl@, Born Alone, Dawned On Me
$ with Richard Thompson
@ with My Morning Jacket
Without bluster or pretense, both groups used songwriting and fine execution to deliver the goods. It has taken years, with slow and steady ascension, to get them established, but these bands have proven they are capable of creating enduring, innovative and compelling music. Call it a post-classic rock template: they fill a hole for those who crave for tuneful, well-played music with heart and sonic adventure. "Art Of Almost" had balls, but is also kind of pretty.
This musical voice, of our generation but really a respectful continuation of their influences, came through with astonishing clarity, of course on Woody Guthrie's "California Stars", but also in the passionate Nels Cline solo on "Impossible Germany". To further cement the connection that both bands share, Wilco welcomed as the Jacket to the stage for a jubilant take onNeil Young's "Cinnamon Girl", with all the band members jumping around and generally having fun. Tweedy's verbose praise for Richard Thompson also nodded to influences, and also set up my unexpected highlight of the evening -- a take on RT's "Sloth" featured textural guitar duel between Thompsom and Nels Cline.
All of which is to say that Wilco owned this performance, and didn't need Dylan to make it a memorable night. Which is good, I guess, because Bob rarely mingles (he has subsequently invited James and Tweedy to join him 14 shows into the tour), and produced a singular set of music that had the potential to polarize the audience.
A Dylan set has long been an exercise of setting up and denying expectations -- Bob's vocal readings are inflected in a way that leaves anybody attempting to sing along cursing the arrangement or scratching their heads. But while he handled this deception in the not too distant past with undeniable cool, on this night, I couldn't help but interpret it with a bit of sadness. Maybe there is a breaking point with how much abrasiveness one can tolerate in his voice. Never a great vocalist, sometimes it felt like he was trying to be deliberately bad, especially since he sounds relatively lucid on Tempest.
Things Have Changed, Love Sick, High Water (For Charley Patton), Soon After Midnight, Early Roman Kings, Tangled Up In Blue, Duquesne Whistle, She Belongs To Me, Beyond Here Lies Nothin', A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Blind Willie McTell, Simple Twist Of Fate,Thunder On The Mountain, All Along The Watchtower
Encore: Ballad Of A Thin Man
Then comes something like "Tangled Up In Blue" which offered the audience a glimpse into that mystery. As the song unfolds, it's like the whole of history being thrust upon you. Oddball cadence or not, seeing the man perform songs like this, "Simple Twist Of Fate" or "All Along The Watchtower", even "Love Sick" can be an introspective and highly personal experience. It makes you think about not whether you like the music, but what you like about the music. You feel Dylan in your head and in your heart, even when your ears sometimes let you down.
It seems like Bob's not doing tours without awesome support these days, but if you dig the opener and enjoy Dylan, do stick around. It just might put the whole night into context.
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up In Blue