Review by Greg Haymes
Photograph by Timothy Reidy
Five years ago, when Bob Dylan last graced the stage of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, he was the headliner of the one-time-only Saratoga Music Festival that featured a cavalcade of Americana acts, including the likes of Levon Helm, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, the Swell Season and Raul Malo.
Last week, Dylan returned to SPAC as the top-bill on the touring Americanarama Festival of Music – which also featured Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham – and at the end of the night I was left with the same thought that I had back in 2008 – Dylan’s performance was disappointingly anti-climactic.
He wasn’t bad, really, but there just wasn’t much of a spark onstage until he closed his set with “All Along the Watchtower,” and by then it was a case of too little, too late.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a staunch Dylan fan since I traded in my Willie Mays baseball cards for Freewheelin’ But a lackluster show is a lackluster show, even when offered by an artist of Dylan’s cache.
He wasn’t helped out much by his band, either. Although the rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile and guitarist Stu Kimball did their best to pump up the beat, guitarist Colin Linden – less than a week into his tenure with the band following the abrupt departure of Duke Robillard – played with such tentativeness that he offered the songs little or no muscle.
Dylan started his set off strong, standing center-stage – and even dancing around a bit! – for the opening volley of “Things Have Changed,” “Love Sick” and “High Water (For Charley Patton)” – but the show seemed nothing more than perfunctory once he moved over to the piano.
While more recent tunes – especially the blues-centric selections such as “Duquesne Whistle” and “Early Roman Kings” – adherred fairly closely to their recorded versions, Dylan’s few forays into his acclaimed catalog of ’60s songs – “She Belongs to Me,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – were typically twisted to the point of unrecognizablity, his gravelled voice bending sing-song patterns over radically reinvented melody lines.
The band finally brought some punch to the show-closing “All Along the Watchtower,” but by then, many in the crowd were already headed for the exits. And a languid, lazy stroll through the encore of the classic “Blowin’ in the Wind” seemed almost to be the antithesis of the urgency that the song originally possessed.
As it turned out, the highlight of the fest was the surprise appearance of the Band’s Garth Hudson, who joined Wilco – yes, Wilco, not Dylan – for a handful of mid-set tunes. The 75-year-old Hudson strapped on his accordion to squeeze out some tasty backing licks behind vocalist Jeff Tweedy & Co. during the traditional “Long Black Veil” and Wilco’s own “California Stars.” Then he moved over to the organ and launched into the unmistakable heavy-church instrumental introduction to the Band classic, “Chest Fever,” as My Morning Jacket’s Jim James joined in to duet with Tweedy.
Of course, Tweedy and Wilco have long since outgrown the Americana categorization, and they delivered the most musical diverse set of the fest, with “Impossible Germany” and “Art of Almost” emerging as highwater marks, both fueled by the rock-solid bottom end of bassist John Stirratt and the gonzo guitar work of Nels Cline.
Led by the twirling, shaggy-haired Jim James, My Morning Jacket spun through a batch of ’70s-influenced jam-band psychedelia, highlighted by the sprawling “Steam Engine,” although they did manage to touch on Americana during “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” “Outta My System” was slow to get off the ground, but the dreamy swirl of “Steam Engine” built upon one crescendo after another, building to a thrashing climax with Carl Broemel on saxophone.
Opening act Ryan Bingham – like Dylan, an Academy Award-winning songwriter – exhibited the most direct Dylan influence and the most obvious Americana affinity as well, especially as he and his band unleashed the foot-stompin’ hoedown “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So” (with hot-wired fiddling from Richard Bowden) and the slash-and-burn blues stomper “Sunshine,” balanced with the ballad “Southside of Heaven.”
BOB DYLAN & HIS BAND SET LIST
Things Have Changed
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Soon After Midnight
Early Roman Kings
Tangled Up in Blue
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Blind Willie McTell
Simple Twist Of Fate
All Along the Watchtower
Blowin’ in the Wind
WILCO SET LIST
At My Window Sad and Lonely
Bull Black Nova
Art of Almost
Long Black Veil (with Garth Hudson)
California Stars (with Garth Hudson)
Chest Fever (with Garth Hudson, Jim James)
I’m the Man Who Loves You
MY MORNING JACKET SET LIST
Old September Blues
Outta My System
Wonderful (The Way I Feel)
Off the Record
What a Wonderful Man
RYAN BINGHAM SET LIST
Beg For Broken Legs
Tell My Mother I Miss Her So
Southside of Heaven
Too Deep to Fill