Between onstage collaborations, surprise guests and even “The Weight,” Friday night’s (July 26) stop on Bob Dylan‘s Americanarama tour — featuring Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham — bore at least a little resemblance to The Band’s all-star concert, The Last Waltz, or Dylan’s ’70s era “Rolling Thunder Revue.” The show took place at Pier A in Hoboken, New Jersey, a beautiful venue right across the Hudson from New York City.
“Americanarama” is a perfect name for the tour: all of the artists on the bill are rooted in Americana, though none are restricted by it. In the case of Dylan, Wilco and My Morning Jacket, they all enjoy a bit of the bizarre as well as straight-ahead roots music. Each artist uses roots music as a jumping-off point, but not necessarily as a roadmap.
That’s certainly the case with Ryan Bingham, who started out playing mostly acoustic music, but cranked up the electric guitars for his latest, Tomorrowland. As he said in a recent interview, he “went electric” once he had larger living quarters and stopped worrying about disturbing roommates. That love of volume came out in his show, and while his set was pretty straight-ahead rock, it may have been a shock to those who know him only from his Oscar and GRAMMY winning song “Hurting Kind”, from the film Crazy Heart.
My Morning Jacket were an inspired choice to add to a package tour headlined by Bob Dylan. Frontman Jim James appeared in the Dylan-inspired film I’m Not There, and recorded Dylan’s “Goin’ to Acapulco” for the soundtrack. Also, MMJ share Dylan’s affinity for the Band (they were one of the highlights of last year’s Levon Helm tribute concert). Their set was kind of Dylan-esque: they went from their version of straight-ahead rock with “Off The Record” to more psychedelic territory on “First Light” and “Victory Dance.” Their choice of covers showed the bands’ roots in American soul: Gil Scott-Heron’s flute driven “The Bottle” and Marvin Gaye’s “Baby, Don’t You Do It,” which closed their set as they were joined again by Bingham. On the latter, which ended their set, (and also covered by the Band at The Last Waltz) they were joined by Ryan Bingham.
Wilco’s set was even more Waltz-like. Guests included Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule member Warren Haynes, and former Mott The Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. Not that they simply relied on guests: Wilco’s set got the strongest reaction of the day. They balanced some of their most well-known material with lesser-known songs, hitting a perfect note between satisfying and challenging the audience.
They opened with one of their most pop songs, “Dawned On Me” with an added skronky guitar, which did not take away from the song’s catchiness in any way. After a handful of other fan-favorites, including “Misunderstood,” “Handshake Drugs” and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” they were joined by Haynes for a take through “Feed Of Man,” from their very Americana-tinged collaboration with British songwriter Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. Haynes’ guitar stabs added bite to the words (adapted from lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, no less). Later they were joined by Ian Hunter for his classic “I Wish I Was Your Mother.” Haynes returned for what is perhaps the loveliest song in Wilco’s catalog, “California Stars” (from the first Mermaid Avenue ), his tasteful playing driving the song to even more gorgeous heights.
During Wilco’s set, frontman Jeff Tweedy mentioned that they’d be at soon-to-be-closing legendary rock club Maxwells, just a few blocks from Pier A, later that night. That may have inspired the slow but steady exodus from the venue after their set finished. And Bob Dylan’s first couple of songs may have added to that as well.
He led off with a number of songs from the past twenty years – the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed,” “Love Sick,” “High Water (For Charley Patton),” and from last year’s Tempest, “Soon After Midnight” and “Early Roman Kings.” It’s well-known that Dylan changes the arrangements of his songs, and that was certainly the case at Pier A, and some of his recent songs are even hard to recognize at first. One young attendee told his father, “He sings like Batman!” while an older concert-goer laughed, “I heard Bob Dylan was supposed to show up tonight!” You could have a debate whether Dylan is “challenging” his audience by avoiding sing-along versions of his classics, or if he’s just seeing what he can get away with: people will likely show up to his performances no matter what.
But, these days, Dylan shows are more like bad Dylan albums — you can always find some great performances if you’re paying attention; your patience will be rewarded. That was true in Hoboken: eleven songs into the set, he pulled out the fan-favorite rarity “Blind Willie McTell,” and just like that, the show seemed more focused, and more intense. The song, like many others during the show, centered around Dylan’s piano (he no longer plays guitar live, sticking with keyboards, and often playing no instrument at all); the song also featured his most impassioned harmonica playing of the night. After a nice run through “Simple Twist Of Fate,” he did a rockabilly rave-up version of 2001’s “Summer Days,” which seemed the perfect soundtrack to a 70-something degree evening.
That was followed by the night’s big moment: the performance with Jeff Tweedy, Jim James and J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf (“You can see him tomorrow night at Giants Stadium!” Dylan announced, perhaps not realizing that that building has long since been knocked down and replaced with MetLife Stadium). The three singers joined-up for a soulful run through of The Band’s classic “The Weight.”
After his guests left, Dylan did a piano-centric “All Along The Watchtower,” which was still powerful without the raging Hendrixian guitars he used when he played that song in the ’90s and ’00s. He closed with “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” and while the crowd had, in fact, thinned out by that point, those still in attendance called out for more. To no avail: he may thrill you with his performances — sometimes — but Bob Dylan never gives you exactly what you want. Maybe that’s why people come back, decade after decade, and arena headlining acts still sign on to open for him.