Americanarama is a silly name. Let’s get that part of the way.
But last spring, when a pairing of Wilco and Bob Dylan was announced, I was immediately sold. And the pot sweetened when I learned that My Morning Jacket was on the bill, as was Grammy winner, Ryan Bingham. So it was starting to look like a festival. That concerned me a bit because there’s always the danger that it's too much and that individual sets will be too short. Last summer, at Jones Beach, I saw a festival/show that featured Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Cracker and Big Head Todd. And though everyone partied like it was 1995, my favorite band of the four, Cracker, played something like four whole songs. I think we heard the entire set walking from the parking lot to the arena. But with a 6:00 pm start time, Americanarama was unlikely to shortchange us. The only catch was that for the Jones Beach show, My Morning Jacket would not be playing. It would be Beck instead. As much as I like My Morning Jacket, I like Beck too. There were no complaints here.
Except for the name. Americanarama? Well, you could at least see where the promoters were coming from. Bob Dylan is not only a seminal figure in the history of American popular music, he has always drawn from many different and distinctly American – musical traditions: folk, country, rock, blues etc. Part of his particular genius is to rebel against easy categorization. While he’s not the chameleon like figure he used to be, his most recent albums continue to draw acclaim. Wilco is a fantastic band which, like Dylan, cannot be easily pigeon-holed. Wilco sprang forth from the Uncle Tupelo divorce as an “alternative country” band but have transcended that genre with a sound that ranges from power pop to experimental noise-rock. Front man Jeff Tweedy delivers as much Brian Wilson as Johnny Cash in his songs. Then there’s Beck, the poet-slacker-savant who does it all. Blues, folk, hip-hop, electronica, you name it. The most traditional act on the bill was also the youngest – the opening act, Ryan Bingham. He’s a roots-rock and country singer of the most authentic kind, a singer songwriter in the tradition of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt. OK. So, it’s Americanarama.
Unfortunately, we missed Ryan Bingham’s set. The problem with Jones Beach is Long Island. I made the familiar mistake of underestimating the traffic and the time needed to park. Still, there was that visceral thrill when you drive across the bay inlet and see the brick Venetian tower looming over Parking Field Four. We settled into our seats towards the beginning of Beck’s set. Beck was dressed in a black suit and fedora, looking like a bluesman of old, or, perhaps, a skinnier version of Van Morrison. His trio played a full set (20 songs) that spanned his career (now 20 years). He was subdued at times but very much locked in whether playing acoustic laments (“Lost Cause”) and delta blues (“One Foot in the Grave”). And when he played the drum machine, he was clearly enjoying himself. I ordinarily don’t approve of a drum machine at a rock show but this is Beck, after all, and his brand of acoustic electronica worked perfectly on playful tracks from Odelay like “Sissyneck” and “Where It’s At” and several tracks from his underrated 2008, album, Modern Guilt.
Wilco took the stage just as the sun began to set behind the amphitheater. When the weather cooperates, there is something magical about seeing a concert at Jones Beach. The fading light colors the sky and the silvery water surrounding the bandshell and you feel the cool breeze off of Zach’s Bay. And when a band like Wilco takes the stage and the music washes over you, it’s just the way summer is supposed to be. The band opened with “Born Alone” a song that encapsulates the musical range of the band of Wilco. It’s both sad and defiant, has a catchy guitar hook and it ends with a powerful instrumental crescendo, a musical descent that flirts with chaos, like an inversion of the Beatle’s, “A Day in the Life”. From there, they went into “Sunken Treasure” from the 1996’s Being There. “Music is My Savior, and I was maimed by rock and roll,” sang Jeff Tweedy. The crowd roared with approval.
When Uncle Tupelo, the vanguard of the alternative country scene, split up in 1994, the two leading song-writers, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar went their separate ways and formed Wilco and Son Volt, respectively. It was an acrimonious break-up but I refused to take sides. Why should I? As much as I enjoyed Uncle Tupelo, I figured that with two spin-offs coming out of the break-up, it would be as if a great band multiplied. Double the music. And sure enough, in 1995, Wilco released A.M and Son Volt released Trace. Two very fine albums. So far, so good. But in the following year, Wilco released, Being There, an ambitious double album that upped the ante by offering diverse musical styles and a songwriting depth that took the group to another level. It was breakout album for Wilco and it established Tweedy as an artist who would not be fenced in by the boundaries of “alternative country” or any particular rock or pop music genre. It’s something he has in common with Beck, not to mention a certain bard from Hibbing Minnesota.
About halfway through the set, Wilco played “Impossible Germany,” a crowd pleaser with a swaying, jazzy feel. Twin guitars carry the melody’s main theme and then at the midway point, the song breaks into an extended, face-melting solo by Nels Cline who stands on the side of the stage, contorting his body while firing off bursts of sound with his guitar. Cline joined Wilco in 2002, after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and brings a touch of experimentalism and avant-garde jazz to the band’s sound. (It’s impossible to imagine him playing with Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt). They follow with “The Art of Almost,” a long and eerie track loaded with electronic noise, sonic chaos and delight. Wilco closed their set with “A Shot in the Arm,” a favorite of mine from the Summerteeth album. I wanted more but the best was yet to come.
The highlight of the evening was Wilco’s encore. Beck came out and joined the band in a cover of the beautiful “I am the Cosmos” by Big Star’s Chris Bell. Tweedy and Beck then traded vocals on “California Stars” from Mermaid Avenue, the album of Woody Guthrie songs played by Wilco and Billy Bragg. It’s a song that sounds better outdoors. (Really, it does!) Next, they were joined onstage by the female duo, Cibo Matto and launched into a fun version of Beck’s slacker anthem “Loser” (“Choking on the Splinters!...”) Tweedy then introduced Sean Lennon who brought the house down with rousing versions of “Yer Blues” from the Beatles White Album followed by “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver. It was a thrilling ending that paid homage not only to John Lennon, but also to Bob Dylan. ("Yer Blues" features the lyric “I’m feeling suicidal like Dylan’s Mr. Jones”). Those two songs were worth the price of admission.
It was tough act to follow but then Bob Dylan doesn’t really follow anyone. He does his own thing and his own thing is both captivating and confounding. Even Dylan aficionados will concede that His Bobness is an uneven live performer. He can be spellbinding one night and out-of-sync the next. Well Dylan was less-than spellbinding this time around, but then I’m spoiled. I’ve seen Dylan twice in the last 3 years and both times the shows were riveting. Anyone who has heard Dylan sing in the past decade – on album or in concert - knows that his voice is not what it used to be. To non-fans, that may seem like a bizarre criticism but his signature nasally whine has transformed over time into a guttural croak. He’s compensated for the decline of his instrument with a series of brilliant albums (since 1997’s Time Out of Mind) and style of delivery that lends him a certain gravity. He’s no longer the 1960s “voice of his generation.” Now he’s part carnival barker and part Old Testament Prophet. His recent albums feature a range of songs from the American blues and folk tradition – depression era murder ballads, Mississippi floods, doomed love and wry musings about the end of things. But on this night, the vocals were more garbled than usual. He also played five or six songs from his classic period (the 1960s through 1974’s Blood on the Tracks) and, as he usually does, he completely transforms the arrangements. It worked beautifully for “Tangled up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” but less so for “She Belongs to Me” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Still, to hear those songs…
Dylan’s band is a crack outfit led by guitarist, Charlie Sexton on guitar. The versatile Donnie Heron alternates between pedal steel, mandolin and banjo giving the songs a rich texture. When you watch the band play, you notice that every member is watching Dylan, practically at all times. Is this a sign of Dylan’s command as a band leader or is it because he is unsteady? Perhaps both? Of course, Dylan fans will tell you that the inconsistency of the live performance comes with the territory of an artist who takes risks and re-interprets his songs every time he sings them. You simply never know what you’re gonna get and many fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bob Dylan is 72 years-old. And while I was watching him sitting behind the piano (he rarely plays guitar anymore), I thought of John Lennon. If he were alive, he would be 73. What kind of music would he be making? What kind of performer would he be? Would he still sound like John Lennon? (Would he sound more like John Lennon than Sean Lennon did?) Would he have re-united with Paul McCartney and charged $500 a ticket to hear Beatles songs? Would he be singing love songs? Socially conscious songs? And would his new songs be any good? Would he break musical ground with each album? Would he continue to inspire his audience? We’ll never know these things but you could feel the depth of his inspiration on everyone who took the stage - Beck, Jeff Tweedy and Dylan himself. It felt as if John Lennon’s spirit was in ocean air on that summer night, and it sounded pretty good to me.