August 17, 2008
Review by Mike Skliar
Just back from an incredible music extravaganza that billed itself as the
"Saratoga Music Festival" at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, one of the
original "summer sheds" hosting music in a combined indoor-and outdoor
setup. I hadn't been back to SPAC since my first time there, seeing James
Taylor way back in the late 70's.
It was a fantastic Dylan show in every respect. The many supporting acts
starting at around 2 pm and continuing till Bob took the stage at almost
10 pm really "upped the ante" and Bob really delivered the goods. A few
words about the incredible day of music are in order firstů
We were delayed by huge lines of cars to get in to park, but arrived in
time to see the end of the first act's set, some fine tex-mex-by way
of-Elvis rootsy music by Raul Malo.
Next up was the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who I've seen
many times before. Our seats were fantastic (just inside the 'pit' area way
down in front) but the acoustics left something to be desired for all the
acts up to the Levon Helm band and Bob Dylan himself, where the sound
was excellent. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sang & played a great
(though shortened) set of their rustic Appalachia-meets Americana material,
with a few new songs thrown in. Of particular interest to long time Bob
Dylan fans, David Rawlings sang a clever rewrite of Mississippi John Hurt's
Candyman, redone with lyrics about a 'sweet tooth'. I caught Rawlings at
one of the many later set breaks and asked him about it. He said he had
been familiar with the original "Candyman", not thru Mississippi John Hurt
originally, but from the 1961 Dylan recording (with that great refrain "run
and get the buggy, get the baby some beer"). Gillian and David are (as all
of the lineup that day, of course) big Bob fans and have been known to do
covers of such unlikely Dylan-related songs as "Billy" and "Copper Kettle".
In addition to impeccable harmonies, Gillian's precise guitar and banjo playing
(harmonica too) and David's incredible guitar playing (on a vintage archtop
acoustic) should be mentioned as well.
Steve Earle came on solo at first, strumming an acoustic guitar (and later a
steel-bodied National and a bouzouki) and performing strong new songs
about Woody Guthrie, his recent leaving of Nashville for a new life in New
York City, how 'we're all immigrants' and more. He was soon joined by
someone doing energetic yet tasteful backing beats (and a tiny bit of
turntable scratchin'- kudos to Earle for staying current yet authentic) along
with a backup singer whose name I didn't catch. Their set was strong,
marred only slightly by the fact that the sound mix hadn't really gelled yet,
making it hard to understand the excellent lyrics - I'll have to buy his new
album for sure, though. Steve mentioned being the opening act for Bob
way back in 1989 or so (with future Bob sideman Bucky Baxter on pedal
steel, as I remember). His set today was thoughtful, powerful, and
I had seen Conor Oberst before, when he billed himself as "Bright Eyes"
with a large band and it worked well. Unfortunately this time 'round he
was playing with a more straightforward rock band, augmented by
Hammond organ, with all the amps set Spinal Tap-style to "Eleven". The
sound was so loud from our seats that we chose to take a bit of a break
back in the field, where his sound mix was better, or at least listenable. I
caught a sort-of version of "Corrina Corrina" that sounded interesting, but
overall there was a bit too much earnest-hard rock posturing for my taste
in his set. It probably works much better on record or at a reasonable
By contrast, Glenn Hansard, fronting a conglomeration called the "Swell
Season" was subtle, personable, moving, funny, and absolutely incredible.
Taking the stage solo at first after a long time where there were sound
problems, he started one of the songs from the wonderful indie movie
"Once" (for which he deservedly won an Academy Award) only to have
the sound system die on him mid song. Undeterred, he jumped to the
very front of the stage and in his best Irish busking-at the top of his lungs,
delivered the rest of the song tremendously with no amplification
whatsoever. The rest of his set (augmented with a violin player, bass,
guitar, etherial piano & vocals from Marketa Irglova, and occasional drums)
had a few sound problems here and there but was incredibly powerful.
Hansard's acoustic guitar and vocal version of a Van Morrison song from
Astral Weeks was absolutely incredible. He talked about the "holy trinity'
of singer-songwriters (which he defined as Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van
Morrison) and talked about how great Bob and his people were when he
toured as the support act in Australia for Bob last year.
The incredible-off the charts quotient got even higher with the Levon
Helm Band extravaganza. This was, as his guitarist pointed out, a 'little
taste' of the Midnight Ramble" concerts which he hosts in his barn in
Woodstock monthly. For today's gig he had assembled a band of about 14
people, including a five piece horn section, bluesman "Little" Sammy Davis,
the great Larry Campbell on guitar and violin, and many others. Levon
played drums and, mid-set, mandolin, singing Band classics, old blues songs,
and his own solo material with obvious joy. You couldn't help but feel the
echoes of the "Rock of Ages" Band-with horns set from that long ago New
Years in 1971-2, or the "Last Waltz" from 1976, and though I was at
neither event in person, this was about as close as you could come these
days. Versions of "Ophelia", "Rag Mama Rag", "Long Black Veil", "Chest
Fever", "Tears of Rage", "The Shape I'm In" and "The Weight" were epic
in scope and execution. Levon didn't sing everything, and time and
infirmities have taken something of a toll, but his spirit was there, and his
singing was incredibly evocative on some of the more acoustic numbers,
including "Got me a Woman" and "Anna Lee" from his wonderful new disc
"Dirt Farmer". On the latter number, accompanied instrumentally only by
the haunting fiddle of Larry Campbell, he sounded almost like a latter-day
Ralph Stanley, in fact. The encore was (a la Last Waltz's "I shall be
released") where all the rest of the day's performers thus far (no Bob Dylan
yet, of course) joined in singing "The Weight", with Levon taking all the
verses except for the 'crazy chester' verse (the one usually taken by the
late Rick Danko) sung by Steve Earle.
And now, finally, on to the main attraction, some guy named Bob
something-or other (Amazing that the few ushers who had actual
schedules of the music all had handwritten versions with the name
On this tour, I had seen the Brooklyn show last week, which had a great
performance but a setlist that I wasn't as thrilled about. Tonight, I'm
pleased to report, the performance was even better, and the setlist was
even better then that, perhaps. Gone were the sometimes-done to-death
warhorses of Summer Days, Honest with Me, and even Spirit on the Water
(which is wonderful the first seven times you hear it live, but thenů ). In
their place were lots and lots of vintage 1965-66 Bob, a great surprise from
1979, and some great recent material.
At the opening "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat" I sensed that we were in for a
great show, and Bob was giving those great little sly phrases all the attention
they deserved. Then came a tremendous (how long has it been since he
played this!) "It's all over now, baby blue". Bob's ignored this song for far too
long, and if I'm not mistaken the last few times it was played in about 2005
or so, it had a strange arrangement that really didn't suit the song. This time
the arrangement and the song fit much better, although there was a bit of a
rushed quality to the second line of every verse that added to the urgency
of it all.
"Rollin and tumbling" was next, followed by an absolutely incredible
"Desolation Row". Bob's phrasing on "Desolation Row" underwent a few
mid-song metamorphoses, eventually becoming this wild, staccato thing
that's hard to describe. Bob's glee was obvious as leaned in, smiling at
the band, as if to say "how far can I go with this? wait, I'll show you".
He loved the "Dr Filth" verse he even sang it twice, but it didn't
matter- this was a version for the ages.
Continuing on that 1965-66 theme, "Stuck inside of Mobile" was effectively
delivered, with Bob forgoing the usual instrumental introduction and going
right into the surrealistic tale with energy. Some nights I've seen him go
through the motions a bit in this song, but tonight he was right 'there' with
A smoky, snaky "Million Miles" was next with an effective midnight blues feel.
Then it was back to '65-66 again with "Most likely you go your way". This
time Bob liked the "judge holds a grudge" bridge so much he sang it twice,
but again, it didn't matter, he was relishing the great rhyming wordplay on
the song (one of those if-anyone else had written it-it'd be their song of a
lifetime, but in Bob's catalog its just another great one).
A fine Highway 61 was next, followed by the rarely-played "I believe in you"
from Slow Train Coming. This had beautiful and serious singing, a fine
counterpoint to the somewhat circus atmosphere that some of the other
songs had, especially with that sometimes wild carnival-style organ playing
We were then treated to an intense and somewhat rocked-out version of
"IT's alright, Ma". Apart from swallowing the first line or two, it was a great
performance (tho I remember Brooklyn's concert from last week being just
slightly better) of a classic song. The slightly new arrangement of this is
slightly reminiscent of the 1978 version, and a bit less 'swampy' then the
versions from the past few years.
A fine version of "When the Deal goes Down" was a great reminder to all
that Bob's still writing great songs today. "Thunder on the Mountain",
freed from its usual anchoring- the-encores position, had new life. Unlike
the version I heard in Brooklyn last week, this one was not rushed, but
spit out in a fast pace like some latter day 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'.
A fine, spooky menacing version of "Ballad of a Thin Man" was next, and
was the last song of the main set.
There was probably much speculation about which of any of the day's guests
(Levon? Larry Campbell? Steve Earle?) might come on stage for the encores.
In the end, it was just Bob and his band, but after the star studded ending
to Levon's set, Bob probably wisely chose just to go ahead as usual. "Like a
Rolling Stone" was a celebration of everything Bob, and the crowd was
justifiably ecstatic. There's a strong rhythm and blues feel now to "Blowin'
in the Wind" that connects it to songs such as "A change is gonna come'
(itself inspired in part by a Bob song). It was a fitting close to an incredible
day and night of music.
Review by Stephen Goldberg
This was an all day festival starting at 2PM. We got there at 7PM. Soon
after entering an employee carrying a thick wad of tickets asked us if
we'd like to sit inside. I guess sales were a little slow...... Levon and
his band were,
as always, fantastic. We were treated to an abbreviated set, only 1 song
from Little Sammy Davis and one from Amy Helm. Larry Campbell brought the
house down with his guitar intro to Chest Fever and his wife held the
crowd spellbound with Long Black Veil. I have to say, Jimmy Vivino does
Tears of Rage better then either Bob or Richard Manuel. A tough act to
follow. Bob came on around 9:30 and opened with a rollicking Leoprad
Skin. His voice was clear and turned way up in the mix. His keyboards
were mixed fairly high as well throughout. The crowd was on it's feet and
the excitement was obvious. And then.....a completely unrecognizable Baby
Blue and you could feel the energy fade away like air out of a balloon.
After that the exodous was slow but steady, not as bad as I've seen it
before. It seems that some people come to a Dylan show just to say that
they have seen a legend and probably joke about how they couldn't
recognize a thing. If they did, they missed a beautiful I Believe In You
that was worth the four hour drive and price of admission. This show
rocked much harder than Prospect Park because the slow numbers really
weren't. Heavy on the 60's, we still got something from Slow Train, Time
Out Of Mind and Love & Theft. On some songs Dylan was doing some weird
syncopated vocal thing that is hard to describe and at times hard to
take. At least it isn't upsinging. So please, those of you up front, stop
Review by Larry Kosofsky
A marathon day of music at Saratoga - from 2:30 pm almost to midnight -
with many wonderful moments. Raul Melo started out with latin pop
flavored with Louis Prima-style vocals, nice horn riffs in a tough time
slot. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings followed with a well-received set
featuring sweet harmonies, feverish guitar picking and her old-timey
style. Steve Earle started a bit tentatively, then picked up steam as he
added his wife Allison Moorer and a beat-box. Balance was a bit off, at
least from row E in the pit. Conor Oberst followed with a very loud band
and eminently forgettable lyrics. Sweet Season had to deal with some
technical problems but played a lovely acoustic set. Then the main
course(s): Levon Helm came on with 5 horns, 2 guitars, bass, keyboards and
Teresa Williams and Amy Helm helping with the vocals. They turned in a
fantastic set including "Ophelia", "Long Black Veil", "Tears of Rage",
"Pretty Good Woman", "Anna Lee" (especially lovely with Larry Campbell on
violin and three-part harmony), "The Shape I'm In", a blues number with
Little Sammy Davis, and a grand finale of "The Weight", with Steve Earle,
Gillian and David, Sweet Season, et. al. (plus the audience) joining
in...truly memorable. Bob came on at about 10 pm. with a rocking
"Leopardskin Pillbox Hat" and surprisingly stayed mostly with Highway 61
and Blonde on Blonde songs all night. His voice was in good form, still
gruff and growly, with some new twists: on "Baby Blue" he'd come in a
beat or two early and clip the syllables of the lyrics. The band started
to really cook on "Rollin' and Tumbling". "Desolation Row" was very well
sung with a staccato verse followed by and organ solo. "Memphis Blues"
was nicely played, good vocals closer to the melody, nice guitar
fills,more staccato singing and a weak harmonica solo. And so it went:
"Million Miles", "(Most Likely) You Go Your Way...", a blistering "Highway
61", "I Believe in You", "It's Alright Ma" (probably the best vocals of
the night), a sweet "When the Deal Goes Down", a very fast and tight
"Thunder on the Mountain", "Ballad of a Thin Man", "Like a Rolling Stone"
anthemic as always, and a version of "Blowin' in the Wind" arranged as if
for Sam Cooke, I'd say. Bob looked healthier than last year, was really
focused, and the band was all business...a solid and satisfying show
capping an incredible array of musicians.
Review by Iris Seifert
As the price tag went up for this event as the day went on, the reward
must be greater, and so it was.
The professionalism of not only Bob Dylan and his band, but also his
stable crew of stage hands is remarkable. Watching the confusion of
setting up for Levon Helm and Friends, it was another world for the never
ending work men coming in to show them how it's done.
The whole day another one only the Lord could make, from beginning to
end. And as usual, no disappointment, no frowns, though coming close.
The festival was fairly well organized, but the beer garden being far
from that but rather an equivalent of a station hall with no seats, no
food, just beer at astronomical prices - non-conducive to having one. The
scrutiny of ID checking seemed laughable compared to the fact one could
get stoned just walking across the lawn.
The opening band was trying hard, but just not enough crowd. Gillian
Welch and her guitarist friend Rawlins had stage presence and were very
promising of what was there to come. But, her follower, though with a
bigger name was a bit boring.
The Big Swell, or some such name, was difficult to watch, because
frankly, the speed-ridden guitar-riff-frenzies just are past their
prime, and trying to sound like Hendrix is not doing it either.
Corina,Corina though was all in all ok, but the sound was a bit too much
for most of the audience (ear plugs were readily handed out).
The Irish (?) band (leader like a musical van Gough!) were frustated at
the sound, and then pleased with lovely harmonies and great intnesity.
And then: Levon Helm and Friends. What was eagerly anticipated came to a
slight chaotic start as the set up alone took a long while with much
confusion, and there seemed to many people on stage. When the show
began, there were still all these people. "Too much of a good thing is
not always good", came to my mind. Though the Brass section was fabulous
and creative, the whole impression was seeming stiff and over-rehearsed.
Mr. Helm was appropriately showered with kind loving standing ovations,
and it is remarkable to see him on stage knowing the illness he is
battling. What was missing was the blossom on the stem. Bringing all
previous artists on stage at the end was an old traditional gesture, and
that song was actually the best.
But then a calm but firm wind blew in as the Dylan Crew changed the
scene. A night and day experience. Professionalism. And that through the
whole show, as usual, and much more. Worlds apart as Mr. Dylan and band
turned it up yet another notch (how many are there left towards up?)
Earlier, this Rumi quote came to my attention:
"Seeing you heals me. Not seeing you makes the walls closing." [COleman
And then the unbelievable set list happened, and that, of course, most
enthusiastially from a newcomer to the circus.
It would have never occured in any dream that "I believ in you" would
ever be played live these days, but there it was. it rendered me
motionless, trying to stop the tears from surging up - even as i write
this. That was the "you" in the Rumi quote earlier that day, shining
brighter than the full moon, ringing out into the night.
Unfortunately people are too restless to even hear the message, or see
it, all occupied in grabbing a better seat, getting food, drinks, coming
late, asking 20 people to get up in the middle of a song, ushers being
very consequent in making "intruders" of the Lower Seat area out, or
blocking photo hunters, but causing commotion.
The writing is on the wall, but you have to come near to see what it
says. The ears to hear and eyes to see are still few.
And Million Miles was the first heart stopper, and When the Deal goes
Down the next.
The band in best form, and Mr. Freeman out to show the counter part
earlier where it's at (my neighbor told me the guitarrist of Mr. Helm
used to play with Mr. Dylan!) Mr. Dylan asking a couple of times for a
Guitar-Harmonica duett, which gave extra touch. Mr. Garnier relaxed and
in great spirits, riding off Mr. Recile, and it became clear to me how
important bass and drums really are when it happens just right. And the
organ... well. The only thing one would wish for would be changing the
sound to piano to actually hear more the clarity of Mr. Dylan's playing,
as he clearly was at it in an inspired way.
It also occurred to me again that the main difference in Mr. Dylan
versus the rest is simply "life". The Levon Helm band was very good, but
it was missing the most important ingredient. And presence of mind if you
want to play with Mr. Dylan. In fact, already as a kid i liked "Music",
people just getting together and playing so well that they can improvise
freely, and be in perfect harmony; something not many acheive.
Desolation Row was brilliant, chaning the phrasing towards the end, and
my neighbor said: He is a character! He sings this song like a nursery
It's all righ Ma, Stuck in Mobile, Rolling and Tumbling, and just
everything was great, and the near double-time Thunder on the
Mountain, what can you say?
To finish, another Rumi as it flutterd into my visual field [coleman
Full Moon. Quietly Awake.
Tonight we are getting Love messages,
For their sake we must not go to sleep!
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