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After the Flood

Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, Ripken Stadium, Aug. 12

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/18/2004

It sounded like a good idea at the time: Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at Ripken Stadium—two living legends at the namesake of a third. But on this evening, what should have been a 40-minute trip from Baltimore to Aberdeen turned into a two-hour nightmare of torrential rains, highway construction, inadequate infrastructure, bumper-to-bumper traffic, a mile-long hike from a parking spot to the stadium, and umbrella confiscation at the gate.

We missed the first 15 minutes of Nelson’s set and as soon we walked into the stadium the speakers cut out. Nelson’s band kept playing but no sound reached the seats, which were a long, long way from a stage illogically plunked down beyond the center-field wall. The sound came back on 10 minutes later, and an under-the-weather Nelson struggled to finish an underwhelming set. As soon as he did, the rains came down again, drenching those standing in front of the stage and further isolating those in the faraway seats. Dylan finally came on, but his voice was such a raspy croak that you could barely make out that he was singing “Drifter’s Escape.”

The evening was a disaster in the making, but suddenly the whole thing turned around on a dime. After his third song, a garbled version of “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” Dylan invited Nelson and his two sons, guitarist Lukas and percussionist Micah, onto the stage, saying, “Willie and I go way back. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for me.” They sang a spirited duet on the Kokomo Arnold tune “Milk Cow Blues.” It was the first time Dylan and Nelson had sung together on this tour of minor-league ballparks, and they both sounded better than they had all evening.

As so often happens at his shows, Dylan’s froggy voice began to clear after three or four songs. After Nelson exited, Dylan jumped into “Cold Irons Bound,” now singing with impressive power as he delivered a prisoner’s lament without false hope or whining. From that muscular blues-rock, he shifted into the string-band swing of “Sugar Baby,” accompanied by acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and cittern. As he sang to a woman he once desired, “You went years without me/ might as well keep going now,” his vocal hinted that behind his facade of dismissal he desired her still.

As he has for more than a year now, Dylan played no guitar at all, confining himself to electric piano and harmonica. But there were plenty of guitar fireworks from longtime band member Larry Campbell and newcomer Stu Kimball. Whether they were picking hard and fast on blues-rock such as “Highway 61 Revisited,” lyrical on country-swing tunes like “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” or jazzy on the rockabilly song “Summer Days,” the two guitarists, along with bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Receli, played brilliantly, coaxing their boss into better and better singing.

Five of the evening’s 13 songs came from Dylan’s latest album, 2001’s Love and Theft, an indication that this 63-year-old road warrior is not willing to settle for the greatest-hits oldies formula. And these newer songs held their own next to familiar classics such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” the almost-obligatory encore. Dylan did accede to requests from the storm-soaked crowd to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” but he seemed to grin slyly as the rain fell even harder during the last verse.

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