Bob Dylan and a bunch of his children — his musical progeny, that is — provided nearly six hours of pleasure to thousands of fans at the Hoboken, New Jersey stop of Dylan’s touring AmericanaramA festival on Friday, June 26. On a pleasantly warm evening, the show, at Hoboken’s Pier A, covered all the musical bases of the hybrid genre known as Americana: country, country swing, rock ‘n roll, the blues and even some psychedelia.
The AmericanaramA lineup varies somewhat from gig to gig. In Hoboken, country-rocker Ryan Bingham opened, followed by My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Dylan and his band. Other shows have featured the rocker Beck and the great Scottish singer-songwriter Richard Thompson.
Bingham, playing early, as the crowd was just beginning to fill Pier A’s vast and grassy space, delivered a rousing set drawn from his four albums. Next up were Southern rockers My Morning Jacket, led by lead singer and guitarist Jim James. They had their moments, but too often their set was spacy and diffuse, lacking focus. But the band’s enthusiastic fans loved it.
In recent years James and company have tried their hand at soul and R&B, but the band’s reach exceeds its grasp, as their take on the Marvin Gaye classic “Baby Don’t You Do It” (memorably covered by The Band) demonstrated. The band’s stiff, un-funky drummer didn’t give the song the kick it needed, and James’ strained wailing made one think fondly of both Gaye and Levon Helm, who sang The Band’s version. Ryan Bingham joined My Morning Jacket for the number, and, showing up James’ efforts, nearly saved it.
James also was lackluster on “The Bottle,” Gil Scott-Heron’s sorrowful account of alcohol and the damage done, with Scott-Heron’s former collaborator Brian Jackson joining the band on flute.
Wilco, opening with “Dawned on Me,” from their 2012 album The Whole Love, were superb, playing a well-paced and varied set that showed off their stylistic range, covering country, folk-rock, blues-rock and the band’s more experimental side, with Nels Cline on lead guitar whipping up some ferocious squalls that brought fire and tension to leader Jeff Tweedy’s tunes.
Warren Haynes, of The Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, joined Wilco to play slide guitar on “Feed of Man.”
Near the end of their set, Wilco brought out a surprise guest — the veteran British singer-songwriter Ian Hunter. Although Hunter’s solo albums reveal a marked Dylan influence, he’s best-known for his 1970s work with the band Mott the Hoople. He and Wilco played Mott’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” followed by that band’s biggest hit, the David Bowie-penned “All the Young Dudes.” That number triggered an outbreak of bromance in the audience, with young, ostensibly heterosexual men draping their arms around each other as they sang along (loudly, drunkenly) on the song’s chorus.
One never knows what to expect from a Bob Dylan show these days — he can be brilliant one night and mediocre, or worse, the next. The Hoboken show, fortunately, was one of the good nights. His hour and a half performance drew from each decade of his 50-plus year career: the 60s (“A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall,” “She Belongs to Me,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “All Along the Watchtower”), the 70s (“Simple Twist of Fate,” “Tangled Up In Blue”), the 80s (“Blind Willie McTell”), the 90s (“Things Have Changed,” “Love Sick”), the 2000s (“High Water,” “Summer Days,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”) and the current decade (“Soon After Midnight,” “Duquesne Whistle,” “Early Roman Kings”).
Dylan’s set, however, didn’t begin auspiciously. On the opening number, “Things Must Change,” the sound mix was off and his voice barely audible. Matters improved on the next song, “Lovesick,” from the great 1997 album Time Out of Mind.
It’s no secret that Dylan’s voice has deteriorated greatly over the past decade, with his lower range reduced mostly to a serrated rasp. But although the 72-year-old’s vocal quality could vary from song to song, he often deployed his ravaged pipes to great expressive effect. His phrasing is as distinctive, even eccentric as ever, and his nasal upper range is mostly intact. Like Billie Holiday near the end of her career, he can do a lot with limited resources — when he feels like it.
His gruff voice is well-suited to blues numbers like “Early Roman Kings,” from his most recent album, 2012’s Tempest, and to “Blind Willie McTell,” perhaps the greatest song he wrote in the 80s, a largely fallow decade. The latter number provided some of the evening’s most memorable moments: the arrangement evoked early, 1920s blues (you could imagine Bessie Smith belting Dylan’s evocative lyrics) and Dylan played simple but effective harmonica solos. The song’s two false endings, a nice bit of soul revue schtick, delighted the crowd.
For the set’s next to last number, “The Weight,” Dylan brought out Jeff Tweedy, Jim James, Ryan Bingham and former J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, an old friend of Dylan’s from the 1960s’ Greenwich Village. With so many cooks, this serving of The Band’s indelible anthem could have been a mess, but Dylan, his band and the guests kept it tight and soulful.
Bob Dylan, an old hand at artistic self-reinvention, has changed his sound once again. There’s now much less rock bombast; “All Along the Watchtower,” a rave-up of a set closer in recent years, was subtle and restrained, with no loss of power. Dylan, eschewing his usual electric organ, played piano, serving up blues and boogie woogie licks, block chords and simple rhythmic phrases. He also played a lot of harmonica, in a style that blended his early folky style with the blues.
Some snarky journalists writing about the AmericanaramA tour have called it a “dad rock” event. But the audience in Hoboken belied that label. Although there were plenty of baby boomers, the crowd actually skewed young, with a preponderance of twenty- and thirty-somethings. In other words, mostly people who weren’t even born when Dylan was a towering creative force, but who know that great music is timeless.