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Live review: Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp*

August 13, 2009 |  3:14 pm

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Reporting from Lake Elsinore, Calif. — The great thing about minor league baseball is the intimate view it gives those who relish the game itself more than the race to the World Series or the high-priced superstars.

Bob Dylan offers much the same intimacy for music fans with another summer tour of minor league ballparks, accompanied this time by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and the Wiyos.

Their only Southern California stop was Wednesday night at Diamond Park, the home of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the San Diego Padres' Class-A farm team. It was a refreshingly pure, no-frills look at three veterans who are still in top form, plus one terrific rookie act.

Dylan's 95-minute headlining performance introduced a couple of the songs from his recent "Together Through Life" album into a set much like what he's been delivering with aplomb over the last decade, thanks to a sharp band behind him.

He even picked up a guitar, something he's rarely done of late. He usually stations himself at the keyboard because, according to a recent Rolling Stone interview, he can't find anyone to play keyboards exactly the way he wants them played.

After casually strolling on stage outfitted in a black suit with yellow piping, a matching yellow shirt, bolo tie and modified white gaucho hat, he got things started with "Ballad of a Thin Man." The rock bard then strapped on an electric guitar for another '60s classic, "The Times They Are A-Changin';" it was the only time he played the instrument all night. 


Between sharply delivered lyric phrases, he ripped off a solo on a night markedly low on such instrumental excursions. For the most part, Dylan's harmonica was the most frequently spotlighted instrument until guitarist Lucas Nelson -- Willie's son and a recent addition to his dad's Family band -- came out at the end for "Like a Rolling Stone," the new "Jolene" and "All Along the Watchtower."


Fans often grumble that Dylan, 68, frequently interprets his signature songs so radically that they are unrecognizable. So it was a bit surprising that the first two numbers held as close to the original arrangements as they did.

The reward for those who prize spontaneous musical creation over rote repetition is the new perspectives Dylan provided with shifted vocal or instrumental emphasis on "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," a gloriously hard-swinging rendition of "Highway 61 Revisited" and the amped-up reggae groove given to "Love Sick" from 1997's "Time Out of Mind."

From the new album he included "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," a characteristically layered number that starts off like a love song -- "I love you pretty baby/You're the only one I've ever known" -- then turns existential with a mysterious tagline at the end of each verse.

His words were surrounded by a hypnotically rolling New Orleans rhythm--not the kind of thing likely to find its way to the top of the charts today, but manna from heaven for those who know the riches of American regional music.

Willie Nelson's hourlong set is a bit like the Grand Canyon: Its basic features have been in place for what seems like eons, but the details get shaped and refined subtly as time rolls on.

Nelson opened with "Whiskey River," gave a nod to his departed pal Waylon Jennings with "Good Hearted Woman," dispatched his own '60s standards in a time-tested medley of "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "When the Evening Sun Goes Down" and saluted Hank Williams with "Jambalaya," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "I Saw the Light."

He freshened things up with recent-vintage material such as "Superman," his duet hit with Toby Keith "Beer for My Horses" and "You Don't Think I'm Funny Any More." He's got a new album of pop standards, "American Classic," coming out later this month, but the only song from it that he offered was one that's he's been doing for decades: "You Were Always on My Mind." It mattered little -- Nelson's jazz-inflected, to-hell-with-the-beat vocals and guitar solos are a wonder.

Mellencamp is neither the master singer that Nelson is nor the poet Dylan is, but his middle America songs demonstrate empathy for the heart of the working man and woman.

He and his sharp six-piece band came as close to rock mainstream as anything on the bill, touching on the cornerstones of his blue-collar repertoire that stretches back to the '70s: "Pink Houses," "Authority Song," "Rain on the Scarecrow," with newer entries including "Don't Need This Body" (for which he was joined by the song's producer, T Bone Burnett) and "If I Die Sudden" from his recent "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" album.

A too-brief opening set from the Brooklyn-based quartet the Wiyos was pure joy in its modern-day vision of vintage string-band jazz, folk and blues as played on banjo, upright bass, chromatic harmonica, dobro, steel guitar, washboard and even a pocket bugle.

These guys aren't likely to make it to pop's big leagues. But the game would be so much less fun without such fabulously skilled and inspired kooks.

--Randy Lewis

Photo credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

UPDATE: The original version of this story mistakenly identified Mellencamp's song "Pink Houses" as "Ain't That America." Also, a song in Nelson’s set, "Night Life," was mistakenly called “When the Evening Sun Goes Down.”

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