Having arrived by discontinuous means back at State College and environs, I have busily set about the work of getting another semester started -- BUT first there was the serious business of catching up with Bob Dylan to attend to. Dylan is in the midst of another round of his tours of the nation's minor league baseball parks, and was scheduled to appear at Medlar field right up the road from where I teach my classes, so I had tickets in hand and was looking forward to shortstopping the greatest songs of my generation. I have to admit to a degree of dismay when I got an email announcement (yes, some of us are well enough known to the denizens of the never-ending-tour that they send us updates) that the event was being moved indoors due to the slowly breaking down hurricane trudging up the coast towards us. By Sunday evening, the rain was gone, but we were headed indoors anyway, to University Park's Bryce Jordan Center, the same place I had seen Dylan perform on his last trek through town. He had still been playing guitars on that tour -- the first of many things that would be different this time out.
First up, though, was Elana James, whose group was new to me.
That's her on the violin.
As I listened to James playing along with her two guitarists and bass player, I kept thinking of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. This was that same sort of swinging string band music. Hot vocals, fun lyrics and fingers so fast your brain can't race to keep up with all the notes. James and her gang enjoy each other's company, and thrill just to be playing, even this deep into a tour. This was the third concert in as many nights. The tour made its way from Wappinger Falls, NY, to Cooperstown, to State College, and yet each person who took to the stage seemed as fresh as if this were the first show of the tour.
But I'd really been looking forward to the night's second act, Junior Brown. I've never forgotten that episode of Austin City Limits I caught years ago on PBS when I saw that curious instrument depicted to the left for the first time. I had, of course, seen double-necked guitars before. They'd become something of a laughable cliche in the post-Led Zeppelin era. But this was the first time I'd seen a six string guitar neck doubled up with a steel guitar. These instruments call for really different skills; Junior Brown's got skills, let me tell you. And a baritone voice you could spend nights drinking with. If you've never heard that voice singing "You're wanted by the police, and my wife thinks you're dead," then you really need to get one of Junior's records. I saw the look of sheer awe in the eyes of students on the floor who had never heard this music before. The hat doesn't begin to tell the story. This man is one of our national treasures, one of the finest musicians working today.
And I could never say enough about Jimmie Vaughan. Even before I'd heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan, I'd heard Jimmie's great cover of the old Sam & Dave hit, PACK IT UP, I'LL TAKE IT. Vaughan's band are blues veterans of long standing, steeped in the roadhouse traditions. Vaughan himself plays a style of guitar almost totally unlike his brother's. (Wouldn't you, if Stevie Ray were your brother? What choice would you have?) Jimmie Vaughan's playing is in the mold of people like Freddie King and Albert Collins; it's all in the thumb and index finger --- gets quite a different tone than the flat picking of most of us -- tasty guitar all through the set, with vocals to match.
But then there's that which cannot be matched. For a good fifteen of the last years of the never-ending-tour, Bob Dylan has fronted some of the best bands you can hear anywhere. There's nothing about this band that I don't like. I'm guessing that Tony Garnier, who has been on bass in Dylan's organization for more than a decade and serves as the band's music director, must play a large role in assembling these groups. If you can't get to one of this year's shows, you can hear the group on Dylan's new CD, MODERN TIMES. This is two releases in a row on which Dylan has used his touring group in the studio, a record for him and a clear sign that he trusts these guys with his best.
The new CD was for sale at the venue, but the new songs haven't made their way into the touring playbook just yet. Still, I doubt that anyone in attendance was much disappointed. This was a stellar set, from the opening strains of CAT'S IN THE WELL to the closing furies of ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER. With Dylan on keyboards (organ this year, as oppposed to the electric piano of previous tours), the group has a different sound than it has in the past, though still heavy on the guitar shuffle. Some of the arrangements were new, such as the breathtaking LONESOME DEATH OF HATTIE CARROLL. Others were old friends, like WATCHTOWER, which Dylan has been exploring in its Hendrix arrangement ever since Jimi loosed that maelstrom on an unsuspecting public.
And a real surprise was the strength of Dylan's singing. This was one of his best nights in many years, and one of his best nights of the tour to date.
He'll be making his way, barnstorming around the country all through the Fall. I'd suggest you get yourself to one of the venues. Bob Dylan is doing some of his finest work in decades, and you want to be a witness to it.