On a cool Memphis night, in the week of Independence Day, the Americanarama Festival rolled into AutoZone Park. The crowd was surprisingly young; college kids who were looking to catch My Morning Jacket and Wilco were not disappointed as both bands gave solid performances, including a guest spot from John Prine during the former’s set. But as the sun went down and roadies cleared the stage, the night belonged to Bob Dylan.
Problems arose within Dylan’s band prior to the show which led to the exit of guitarist Duke Robillard, who had been touring with the band all year. For the Memphis show, band veteran Charlie Sexton had returned to the fold. From center stage, Dylan cranked recent masterpieces “Things Have Changed”, “Lovesick”, and “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” for a rousing start to a stellar show. Things drifted into a smoky, jazzy blues as Dylan took to a baby grand piano for a trio of songs from his most recent album Tempest. Among them, “Early Roman Kings” was the highlight of the evening. Dylan’s vocals cut with authority and menace. Halfway through the show, one thing was certain: Bob Dylan was having a very good time.
Throughout the night, Dylan gave Charlie Sexton ample opportunities to really grind on electric guitar leads. With a feather gleaming from his hat, Sexton played each break with a controlled abandon, and Bob Dylan was smiling every time. Besides a minor amplifier problem during cult favorite “Blind Willie McTell,” Sexton’s reentrance went off without a hitch. The set concluded with a rousing version of the classic “All Along the Watchtower,” done closer to the Jimi Hendrix arrangement than Dylan’s stark original. The band sauntered off stage, but returned quickly for “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It was mesmerizing watching Dylan pound the keys on the piano to this one just as he did in the studio forty-eight years ago. As the band walked to the center of the stage for their farewell, Dylan playfully slapped Charlie Sexton on the ass like a coach after a baseball game. As they peered out at the lit roof of the Peabody Hotel over the stadium, Dylan seemed very happy to have Sexton back in the band.
Overall, it was a fantastic show. Bob Dylan swaggered out of the gate like a snake oil salesman and never let up once. He prowled, strutted and barked with command. He blew his harmonica hard, and his attack was more Howlin’ Wolf than Woody Guthrie. One thing is for certain: Dylan is an entertainer who will not allow nostalgia on his time. And because of this, he’s been angering people since he first strapped on a Stratocaster in the mid-sixties. In Memphis, he rarely dipped into his jaw-dropping back catalogue, and when he did, he rearranged the songs to flow with his modern sound. This act has been a bone of contention with many fans for a while. His voice is tarred and feathered, but it’s what he’s always envisioned it to be; Dylan wanted to sound like this when he was twenty years old. The fact is that there are few entertainers who can continue to grow and evolve while remaining relevant after fifty years in the business. The oldies act is a tempting offer, but it’s an offer that Dylan will probably never sign. I, for one, hope he never does. Frankly, there’s just no one else like him.