By Tony Bennett
Forum News Service
DULUTH -- The prodigal son returns. Again.
One of the biggest rock and roll shows to ever hit the area took place Tuesday night at Bayfront Park under overcast skies, but without the drenching rain so many feared would fall.
Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Richard Thompson came together under the “Americanarama” banner to delight the 7,000-odd people gathered there, and the show was one for the books. Under normal circumstances, My Morning Jacket or Wilco likely could have headlined Bayfront on their own, but the guy with his name on more than one of our local manhole covers was the biggest draw for many.
Robert Zimmerman, the man who was born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing before he went on to become one of the most feted songwriters in music history under the nom de plume Bob Dylan, walked onstage with his band just as night fell. The stage was set like an old Hollywood sound stage, with massive Klieg lights hanging overhead. The mood was dark, and the music was, too.
Dylan, who was dressed in a relatively colorful grey suit when compared to his band’s all-black attire, went without an instrument for the first few songs, and he seemed to enjoy playing his music without being strapped to his guitar. He put his hand on his hips like Mick Jagger, threw shapes and illustrated his lyrics with subtle hand motions.
“I used to care, but things have changed,” Dylan sang, his once-reedy voice now having completed its transformation into gravely Leonard Cohenness. As the show progressed, a number of lesser-known songs acted as a warmup to the famed songs, “Tangled Up In Blue” being the first one of those played. Even though the arrangement made the tune unrecognizable, the recitation of the chorus lyric sent a wave of electricity through the crowd.
Dylan’s band expertly played the material, adding banjo and standup bass when needed. But it was Bob Dylan, one of the most beloved songwriters in history, up there on a stage only a short distance from where he came into the world, that made the night magic.
But let’s not sell anyone short. Each one of the evening’s acts was a treat. Richard Thompson started the night off, and the cult songwriter and guitarist — who is actually not an American, and in fact holds an Order of the British Empire that Queen Elizabeth herself awarded him for his luminous music career — played a short, five-song set that served as an appetizer for the evening’s feast. Thompson and his power trio zipped through a brief set, but the guitarist had the growing crowd mesmerized with his slippery Stratocaster mastery. “Sally B” recalled the prog-blues of The Groundhogs more than the acoustic folk Thompson is usually associated with. “Not bad for old people,” Thompson joked, at one point.
My Morning Jacket, who have risen over the last 10 years from promising indie band to Bonnaroo headliners and beyond, played a mix of songs from their recent album “Circuital” as well as a mix of cuts from their last decade of existence. They eased into their set in a low-key way with gentle waves of sound instead of a slam-bang opener; it suited the evening’s mood nicely. The dreamy, bouncy “Lowdown” got arms waving and bodies moving throughout Bayfront Park. “Masterplan” rocked harder, but still retained the band’s slithery soulfulness. Frontman Jim James was in fine vocal form, his voice going from gentle coo to raw yelp at the drop of a hat. The lion-maned singer played ringmaster throughout the band’s set, playing the role to the hilt. For the disco jam “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream,” James even put down his Gibson Flying V to don a fabulous blue cape.
“It. Is. Beautiful here,” James declared, expressing relief at getting to be someplace where the heat wasn’t as oppressive as their other tour stops. During the band’s set, the sun burned away the grey clouds and left a gorgeous summer evening in its wake.
The Chicago-based Wilco, who have become an honorary Duluth band in recent years — they have the mayoral decree from Don Ness to prove it — took the Bayfront stage for the second time in about a year and promptly jumped into a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves The Sun?” that seemed like a plea for the big orange orb to stick around (which it did, mostly). Before the second number, a rendition of “Via Chicago” that featured strategically placed noise bursts, lead singer Jeff Tweedy addressed the crowd, saying “It’s good to be home.”
While it was a joke, the band’s set got very Duluth-y later on, when the group brought up Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker to harmonize on a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which the pair sang from lyric sheets. At song’s end, Sparhawk ripped his lyric sheet up and began eating pieces of it. Why? Why not?