Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing in Carhaix, France in 2012. (Associated Press Photo/David…)
Noblesville, Indiana -- During a musical interlude early in his set Friday night, Bob Dylan faced the audience and playfully shook his shoulders, prompting a gleeful eruption from the thousand who had gathered at the Klipsch Center, an outdoor venue carved out of fields about a half hour north of Indianapolis. It was the first and only time the musical legend would interact with the crowd. When Dylan takes the stage these days, he doesn't speak, doesn't gesture and certainly doesn't banter.
What he does is perform.
For nearly two hours Dylan went about his job in a workmanlike fashion, alternating between singing and playing piano on one side of the stage and singing and playing harmonica on the other, offering the genre-bending tracks from his new album "Tempest" and even more bendy versions of old hits. When it was over, the musician, flanked by his band, approached the front of the stage as the applause came at him. He hitched his hands deliberately in his front pockets, stood legs akimbo and moved his head slowly from right to left, no noticeable expression on his face. Then he turned and left the stage.
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The performance was part of an early engagement in Dylan's Americanarama Festival of Music tour, a but-wait-there's-more bill that a day after July 4 included some of the heartland's most prominent touring musicians, included Chicago-based Wilco and the Louisville, Ky., band My Morning Jacket as well as British legend Richard Thompson and his Electric Trio. The tour began last week, and its U.S. portion will last into August and cover 26 dates. (There is no Los Angeles stop, though the show will come to Irvine on Aug. 3.)
Dylan has been playing in front of crowds for the better part of the past half century. But it feels a little different this time around. The poetic Americana-inflected roots music he helped (among other things) pioneer has been gone so long it's now come back around, thanks to acts like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and the Avett Bros.
Dylan's return to the road after a year during which some of those bands hit peak popularity--and with Wilco, a group that itself has been putting its own spin on Americana music for a while now--underscored his influence on the current scene. Dylan's final moment, stolidly standing with his fingers hitched in his pants like a Wild West sheriff, seemed to say "I'm here, I'm a presence you have to reckon with, I hope you enjoy it, but I won't apologize if you don't.
Some of the songs sent the same message. Though Dylan was keen to play tracks off "Tempest," like the train-stop toe-tapper "Duquesne Whistle," he also was willing to reach into the catalog for something familiar--and come out with something completely different.
As he often does, Dylan took hits like "Tangled Up in Blue," "All Along The Watchtower" and "A Simple Twist of Fate" and gave them new tempos, phrasings and even vocals. In "Blue," he took the meaty lyrics and broke up them into smaller pieces, often ending with the raspy uptalk he's become known for in this latter-career phrase. He also changed its signature line to "Tangle Me In Blue," a first-person command that added to a familiar tune's urgency. Some in the audience stood and howled in delight ("Bobby D!"); others sat back and looked mystified. The singer kept right on going, happy as ever to satisfy and subvert in equal measure.
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Dylan's backing band, wearing lounge-y gray outfits and black hats, stood behind him, playing through the blues, jazz, rock and country arrangements. The pride of Hibbing, Minn., meanwhile, inverted the fashion formula--a long black jacket, black pants and a light-colored flat-top hat.
He might have borrowed the headgear from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who was similarly inclined to throwback haberdashery as he and his band went through more guitars than Dylan has had career phases. Wilco, incidentally, followed My Morning Jacket, who played an enchanting set while it was still light out. This was a band that can sell out midsize venues in its own right and was a worthy appetizer here, an electric warm-up act for a man who knows a little about the transition from acoustic to plugged-in.
Thompson, meanwhile, came out to play a couple of songs with Wilco, including the band's signature hit "California Stars" while Tweedy, sometimes smirking, said that Thompson might be "my best friend." The folk legend looked appreciative from under his black beret. (You don't try to upstage Richard Thompson on the headgear front.)
In a set that went grew increasingly raucous, Wilco, though less audience-challenging than Dylan, was eager to throw in surprises. Most notably, in the wistful moonlight country ballad "Via Chicago," drummer Glenn Kotche spontaneously went into a head-banging solo, prompting many in the crowd to decipher what had just happened before it happened again, a metal moment seemingly dropped from the sky.
Ironically, the Wilco song that most aptly described Kotche's outburst, the band's 2002 song "Heavy Metal Drummer," would follow afterward, underscoring the group's need to keep things unexpected. Wilco enjoys branching off into new genres while staying rooted in Americana--a musical portmanteau, that, like the name of this new tour and the career of its headliner, begins in one place and ends somewhere totally different.
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