By Michael Lello
CAMDEN, N.J. – It’s easy for music fans that missed the 1960s to feel they were shortchanged. Woodstock; the New York folk scene; Monterey Pop; The Allman Brothers, The Band and the Grateful Dead at Watkins Glen.
It might be a stretch to say our generation is having its own Woodstock moment this summer via the Americanarama Festival of Music — but not that much of an exaggeration. The cross-generational tour, topped (in billing, anyway) by Bob Dylan and featuring Wilco and My Morning Jacket has been a celebration, a revelation and a treasure trove for aficionados of what can loosely be described as roots rock and indie rock, and not only because of the artists on the ticket; special guests so far have included Beck, Sean Lennon, Garth Hudson and more.
So on Sunday at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, N.J., the bar was set high, with showgoers aware of the treats that had been tossed out to audiences earlier on the jaunt. And while there were no mind-blowing collaborations — no Daryl Hall leading Wilco through “Maneater” or whatever – the experience was a winning one, in any and every measurable sense.
Following a warmup set by Ryan Bingham, My Morning Jacket delivered arguably the most entertaining set of the evening, partially because MMJ is the most “rocking” act on the bill. Jim James and company unfurled the slinky “Evil Urges,” the frontman/guitarist squaring off with guitarist Carl Broemel in a riff-off worthy of a thrash metal outfit. As the song’s ending drone faded out, a pulsating bass drum and jangly country rock guitar morphed into the title track from the group’s latest album, “Circuital.” James’ powerful and resonant voice rang throughout the structured area of the amphitheater’s seated section.
Next up was “Masterplan,” one of the set’s high points, dark, brooding and powerful, with Bo Koster adding some r&b-flavored organ work not found on the “It Still Moves” track from 2003. There were some psychedelic guitar pyrotechnics, and Broemel did a rock-star jump and split. “I’m Amazed” was more upbeat, while “Dondante,” slow and sludgy, and heavy on the choruses, might have taken the energy level down just a hair, but the song earned its place in the set. Broemel’s saxophone perfectly flavored the meandering and moody piece.
Taylor (vocals) and Griffin Goldsmith (percussion), the brothers from Dawes, joined MMJ on a relaxed and fun take on the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting On A Friend,” Taylor bouncing around the stage with his hands in his pockets, handling leads on a verse and harmonies on the choruses. After James thanked the brothers for their contributions, he also thanked the audience for braving the torrential rains, adding, “Sometimes you just have to say fuck it and let the rain be a part of your life.” Good advice, especially when the music is so great.
Another guest, Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent, and another cover, Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”, were next. Even with an additional musician, the band was locked-in and spot-on, James nailing a rollicking guitar solo that sounded like the Allmans on Human Growth Hormone, before drummer Patrick Hallahan doubled the beat then brought things to a simmer, James, Broemel and Houck repeating the chorus together.
“Victory Dance,” also from “Circuital,” is in some ways representative of MMJ: weird, but weirdly catchy, with James’ sung trumpet-like fanfare. So weird (and wonderful), that James needs to don his now-trademark blue cape to sing it. He stalked the stage, without his guitar, yelling, raising his arms, something between a crazed cult leader and hip-hop MC.
“Wordless Chorus” was another triumphant moment, the song’s clean funk punctuated by James’ falsetto screams, which trailed off into another track from the “Z” album, “Gideon,” riding Hallahan’s insistent tom-tom part. The big coda was wild and wooly, majestic sheets of sound and pounding, syncopated drums, with James jumping onto the drum riser amid squalling cacophony and flashing lights, ending the monumental and cathartic set.
Tough act to follow, but Wilco was up to the challenge, playing a set that expertly melded the group’s avant garde material with the more straightforward Americana the band was initially known for. Jeff Tweedy strummed the opening acoustic guitar chords of “Via Chicago,” singing the sinister opening line, “I dreamed about killing you again last night/ And it felt alright to me” over gentle accompaniment. The song itself was a study in Wilco’s duality, juxtaposing the easy-rolling acoustic rock with the discordant shards of noise that pop up a few times during the tune.
“Solitaire” was short and sweet, while the finely tuned art rock of “Poor Places,” from the band’s transitional and, in some ways, breakthrough record “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
“Art Of Almost,” from 2011’s “The Whole Love,” was one of the premier performances of the night, by any artist, a techno workout of bleeps and bloops made catchy due to the vocal melody.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” followed, Tweedy waving and saying “How ya doin’?” after the line “What was I thinking when I said hello?” Tweedy, known more for his songwriting than his singing, delivered some particularly strong high notes. “Camera,” which followed, was upbeat and airy.
“You guys are great,” said Tweedy, known to be moody, but his compliment included a jab. “You should have seen the oil painting we played to last night. Tough crowd.” After hearing a fan up front yell that he was at that show too, Tweedy joked, “You were there? It’s your fault.”
“Impossible Germany,” with its tension-and-release guitar breakdown, is always a high point of a Wilco show, and “Passenger Side” marked the shift into the more traditional material, featuring Bingham’s fiddle player Richard Bowden. For “California Stars,” Wilco was joined by Bingham and his entire band, for a grand total of 11 musicians on the stage. Bingham and Wilco bassist John Stiratt shared a microphone, adding to the loose hootenanny vibe. “The Late Greats” and “Heavy Metal Drummer,” ending with Nels Cline holding his guitar aloft, were flawlessly delivered and preceded Tweedy’s extended introductory dirty guitar riff of “I’m The Man Who Loves You.”
Cline strapped on his white double-neck guitar for “Dawned On Me,” a nice, ’70s-flavored jaunt, followed by “Dreamer In My Dreams,” Tweedy waving, this time to say farewell, as he sang “Just don’t forget to say goodbye when he’s gone.” A nice, familial ending to a set that had its share of relatively dark and experimental shadings, but overall projected an inclusive and warm feel.
The show could have ended there – and those that cannot stand Dylan’s worn, raspy voice and ever-changing song arrangements would say it should have – but the bard was up next, making a unique entrance. The house lights began to dim, starting at the back of the house and rippling to the stage, before one of his guitarists walked out while strumming the opening to “Things Have Changed.” Dylan strolled to the front of the stage, sans guitar, to lead the band through what is at least the third different arrangement in the relatively short history of the song, which won an Oscar for its inclusion in the 2000 film “Wonder Boys.” Dylan has also added another nuance to the track, punctuating the line “I used to care” with a snarled “yeah!”
The crowd responded with joy, before Dylan launched into “High Water (For Charley Patton),” an appropriate song for the rain-drenched night, but a coincidence because Dylan has been playing, for the most part, the same set every night this tour. Donnie Herron added a banjo solo before a snappy group jam at the song’s finish.
Specs of light were projected onto the black backdrop for “Soon After Midnight,” a croony, early 20th century-style ballad from Dylan’s latest, last year’s “Tempest.” The bluesy, simple and fun “Early Roman Kings,” also from “Tempest,” followed.
“Tangled Up In Blue,” an iconic song any artist would be thrilled to have written, apparently still isn’t good enough for Dylan, who has not only rearranged the tune again, but actually changed some lyrics. Shifting the tense to the third person, he sang of “trying to stay out of the joint” instead of “heading for another joint”; there’s no more pipe lit by the burner on the stove, and now the woman asks the man to memorize the book of poems, which is no longer described as being written by “some Italian poet from the 13th century.” It was a fascinating moment, to see the master add to a masterpiece.
After “Duquesne Whistle,” another “Tempest” track, the 72-year-old offered up “She Belongs To Me,” played now with a straight tempo, adding a bit of darkness and stripping away the original lilt.
Later-set standouts included “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” with a big vocal buildup, Dylan braying, “Yeah! It’s a hard . . .”; “Blind Willie McTell,” now played as a blues and with two crowd-pleasing false endings; and “Simple Twist Of Fate,” played under six simple spotlights.
The Western Swing of “Summer Nights” featured some nice jazzy guitar interplay, while “All Along The Watchtower” included a new instrumental piece, inspiring a crowd clap-along. Dylan led the band to the front of the stage, and as his recent custom, did not bow or speak to the crowd while he stood and fidgeted, soaking up the adulation. They returned shortly for an encore of “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” the acerbic “Highway 61 Revisited” tune that has reemerged as a showpiece as of late; he sang with vitriol and contempt.
Tough to say how Sunday’s Americanarama installment compared to the others, having been to only one, but even a cynic of the highest degree would have a hard time finding fault. Three tremendous artists, one an influential icon still molding his works, and two others legitimate heirs to the throne. And a lot of fun, too.
Maybe 40 years from now, music fans will be kicking themselves for not being around to see it.