Review: The Americanarama Festival of Music

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The mid-summer’s night air is thick with humidity and expectations, with thousands of the mid Atlantic’s palest music fans assembled for a killer quadruple bill marketed as a festival. The legions of fans at this stop on the summer shed circuit are in for a treat with a lineup of four headliners, three of which (Ryan Bingham, My Morning Jacket and Wilco) are assembled in support of a certified American icon, Bob Dylan.

There are well-placed rumors that the Americanarama Festival of Music isn’t exactly a fraternal assembly. Despite Dylan having invited Jim James and Jeff Tweedy up on stage at previous stops, it seems to be one of those arrangements where the support is treated like the help, kept at arm’s length from the legendarily prickly icon. Dylan, apparently, continuing in his role as disestablishmentarian, even within the clubby backstage world. But these are professionals, through and through, and that backstage jazz doesn’t matter to the passionate fans each band brings to the party. The fans just want a fun summer night spent with some Americana-tinged rock and roll…and that’s what they’re going to get.

Ryan Bingham
Bingham ostensibly has the toughest job, opening the show at a time when area happy hours have yet to reach critical mass. It’s a credit to his burgeoning popularity that he’s on this tour, and a testament to the tenacity of those who have braved insane traffic and the wrath of their bosses to greet his arrival on stage at 5:15pm.

His is a Texas variant of alt-country/Americana/folk. Husky vocals come across with tumbled gravitas, sounding like he’s gargling gravel in Jack Daniels while smoking a Marlboro red (in a good way). He cuts a fine figure on stage, thin and wispy and strikingly handsome. He’s bent but unbowed, he’s tested but undaunted. But he doesn’t carry himself warily; he’s disheveled in that aw-shucks kind of way, somehow looking experienced and doe-eyed simultaneously. These traits are not ephemeral; they transpose directly into his music. As he sings “Depression” in a manner more cathartic than disheartening, it seems worth remembering that this is an artist who once named his band “The Dead Horses” (…who travels with dead horses, anyway???).

The band is quite alive this evening, tight where they should be, loose when they can be, and serving their purpose well beyond adequately. His skyrocketing career is the beginning of the rainbow, the symbolic opposite of the act closing the show. His performance is scintillating and his legend will grow; time will tell if it reaches the heights achieved by those set to follow him this evening.

My Morning Jacket
After a brisk half-hour set, and an even more brisk (by festival standards) 15-minute changeover, My Morning Jacket takes the stage. More than a few die-hard MMJ fans wondered why the Kentuckians weren’t closing the show, being that they tend to bring the most noise and bombast to the proceedings. But this bill goes by seniority, not decibels, and here they are, striking the first notes of “Circuital” at 6:02pm. It’s a tune that deserves to open their shows for a long time, given the way it sets the table for what they do: It’s ethereal yet melodic; it rocks even from its mid-tempo pace.

The rest of the set is, frankly, a bit of a shocker. Absent are almost all of the band’s anthemic rocker that normally prop up their live show. No “One Big Holliday,” no “Run Thru,” no “Mageetah,” no “Gideon.” Hell, Jim James even gives lead guitarist Carl Broemel the mic for one song. And yet it’s irrelevant. The band blazes through 75-minutes of razor-sharp, impossibly tight grooves, from the slow burn of “Steam Engine” to the disco-synth of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” to their raucous take on The Band‘s arrangement of “Don’t Do It” (with Bingham sitting in).

A more elongated turnover of the stage allows for the consumption of additional beverages and the sale of more merchandise. And, for the significant setup Wilco requires these days. They’ve long outgrown the simplicity of the alt-country compositions that characterized their early career. Not that they don’t dabble in that realm anymore, but their motif clearly changed after working with Jim O’Rourke, if not before. That ship had sailed before the well-chronicled recording of their most storied album — Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sufficient time has passed; their relationship with their landmark 2001 album is once again accessible through (almost) fresh eyes. And so, they turned 5/11 of that 12-year old album into a scintillating 5/16 of their set. And they start their set at its beginning, with one of the more memorable opening lines an album has ever seen:

I am an American aquarium drinker /
I assassin down the avenue

Nels Cline has become a creative center of activity on stage, often simultaneously playing something electronic in addition to his guitar, and he’s able to easily switch from lap steel to channeling the sort of guitar dissonance that diffused from both the O’Rourke sessions and other connections to Sonic Youth. There are few guitarists (ok, instrumentalists) that fit into the part of the Venn Diagram that Cline inhabits, alt-country on one side and experimental art rock on the other. His touch of strategic wildness is well-balanced on the other side of the stage by John Stirrat‘s bass, steady and unassuming one moment, steady and thumping the next. This contrast is perhaps best realized in “Art of Almost,” a slow burning rocker that almost spins the venue off of its axis by its explosive conclusion. Concert-goers are somewhat stunned, looking at each other with amazement and mutually telegraphed thoughts: “this is probably as good of a performance as Wilco has ever given.”

They band digs even deeper, reaching back to Summerteeth (“A Shot in the Arm,” “Can’t Stand It”), Mermaid Avenue (“Christ for President”), Being There (“I Got You,” “The Lonely1”) and A.M. (“Passenger Side”), which collectively cause conniptions amongst the hard core fans. Nels and Tweedy lead the assault with a battalion of guitars, the guitar tech(s) doing a dizzying day’s work. The ubiquitous tastemaker in his ubiquitous fedora — situated near the front, stage left — may very well have morphed into fanboy at this point. In fact, Dylan should count himself fortunate that they closed with the aforementioned “The Lonely 1” rather than with a track like “Misunderstood,” which just might have caused a riot. Wilco has never been better.

Bob Dylan
Ah, Dylan, thin mercurial trickster, what do you have in store for us tonight?

Over the past 22 years, we’ve caught dozens of shows on the “Never Ending Tour,” and have learned to be cautiously optimistic, but braced for disappointment. His performances vary dramatically from night to night — from the somber and somnambulant to the truly transcendent — we buy our ticket, spin the wheel, and hope for the best.

Only last October in San Francisco, Weeping Elvis caught a show at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium that reaffirmed our faith not only in Dylan as a live performer still vital into his 70s, but in the redemptive powers of rock-n-roll itself. Given the bombastic performances of the carefully curated opening acts on the bill of the tour, the crowd is buoyant as Dylan and his band take the stage.

Sadly, our hopes are misplaced.

For a crowd that just had their hair blown back by the sonic muscularity of MMJ and Wilco, it is dispiriting. Not only is Bob Dylan’s performance not worthy of the passionate musicians who preceded him onstage, it is not worthy of Bob Dylan: the set is flat, dispassionate, and utterly uninspired.

His songs — the lyrical foundation of the modern musical canon — are rendered virtually unrecognizable. They are played not only in different keys, but to different melodies. His voice — which long ago evolved from the striving tenor of his youth to a more wizened croon — has since decayed to a throaty warble that makes Howlin’ Wolf sound downright velvety in comparison. His stage presence — which was never flamboyant—is rendered even more statuesque by the fact that he rarely moves from behind the piano.

However, none of this would present an insurmountable problem, as witnessed in San Francisco, if Dylan played with anything resembling inspiration.

His band members, a versatile assemblage of virtuosos fluent in the American Songbook, are able to jump effortlessly between Delta blues, ragtime, and Dixieland jump swing. Throughout the set, they stay loose but tight, riveted to their bandleader in anticipation of his every meandering.

As facile as they are, they miss the presence of Charlie Sexton on guitar. Or, more accurately, Bob misses playing with Sexton, who seemed to serve as a kind of muse to the Bard. The resulting lack of inspiration casts a monotone shadow over the evening. Even on standards like “Blind Willie McTell” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” musically dynamic pieces that have been played over the years with dramatic conviction, there are simply no highs or lows — just a flat line of ambient ambivalence.

A backstage conversation reveals that Dylan’s management team apparently sold Americanarama as a rollicking rock-n-roll circus, similar to his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, with musicians jumping onstage for impromptu renditions of classic songs. Instead, Jim James and Jeff Tweedy have only been invited onstage with Dylan twice, and Dylan’s set list barely deviates from night to night, except for the occasional “Desolation Row.” (As fate would have it, the next night in Virginia Beach, Dylan brought James and Tweedy onstage for a third time — a rendition of “The Weight” by The Band).

Although we occasionally “hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme,” reminding us of previous onstage glory, they are fleeting remnants of a time when Dylan repainted his masterpieces nightly on tour. As the last notes of “Ballad of a Thin Man” drift into the suburban Maryland night, the crowd shuffles out in a state of quiet bewilderment, as though leaving a museum where mimeographed copies had been stapled into the frames where masterworks used to hang.

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