By Mike Finkelstein
Denver, Colorado. I caught the Americanarama tour in Englewood, CO while on a road trip last week. I’m not so sure that the bands on the tour ( My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Bob Dylan and Ryan Bingham) are truly representative of the burgeoning Americana genre. But if you get a chance to see Wilco and My Morning Jacket on the same bill, you should definitely make plans to get there no matter what it’s being called. To see them open for Bob Dylan, yes, even better, go for it.
Because the Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre is in the middle of a large business park in the Denver suburbs, the show had to begin at 5 o’clock. At that time the mile high sun was shining full bore. Five and a half hours later the show rolled through the finish line as Dylan closed his set.
Bob Dylan is obviously one of the most compelling personalities there has ever been in American popular music. And you could certainly make the case that he was one of the first Americana artists ever, as he has always fused blues, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and country into his own uniquely American blend of music.
Dylan, however, has never made it too easy on his fans in terms of playing live. He is famous for muttering his lyrics, changing the basic feel of his most popular songs from their recorded form, and challenging his audience to actually recognize the songs he’s playing. None of this changed Wednesday. Much of the new material he chose is sharp and charged, but it’s also gruff…and hence, all the more difficult to decipher. Even the old songs were so unrecognizable that singing along with “Tangled Up in Blue,” or “Desolation Row” just wasn’t going to be possible.
The presentation seemed to be compelling for reasons that had little to do with Dylan, himself. Onstage the whole band, in matching white coats and black slacks, was lit like they were playing in a dark, shoe-box-shaped lounge. This stage setup was a clever one. There were old time spotlights propped up on tall stands and others were suspended above the band, casting shadows everywhere and making the band appear rather distant. A huge pyramidal glass-enclosed torch, like the ones we see in outdoor restaurants, was there to quite effectively suggest flickering candles. A curved curtain behind the backline was lit to mimic crushed velvet or cobbles to develop the intimate nightclub vibe.
Oddly enough, Dylan himself didn’t even pick up a guitar (!), just singing with his hand on his hip and occasionally sitting down to pound the piano or leaning into the mic for a harmonica solo. His limitations as a harmonica player do stand out when they aren’t contrasted with his guitar strumming. While the band included a fine bunch of players, they didn’t make much of an effort to project what they were doing to an audience of thousands, leaving that to Bob, who assumed the position of front man. But he didn’t say one word to the crowd he was headlining for. And throughout the set, people who had come to see Wilco and My Morning Jacket did start peeling out into the Colorado night.
Wilco came on stage while the sun was still blasting ¾ of the audience. I had been cowering in the shadows of the seats closer to the stage…yes, I snuck up to stay in the shade…but I took my place in the sun for Wilco. Half way through their set, the reliable Colorado afternoon weather kicked in and showered us for about ten or fifteen glorious minutes. There is nothing more refreshing than summer rain on your scalp! Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy called the ensuing double rainbow, “Stupid,” …just before he suggested they would come back again to play beneath a “full on double rainbow.”
Tweedy and company put on a fine, if streamlined, show. They took us into and developed several different grooves, from ambling folk/rock like “Hansdhake Drugs” to blistering rock riffs and other more country-focused tunes like “Hesitating Beauty,” and “Jesus, Etc.” They blended styles with an ease and balance that put them near the very top of this new genre. Wilco are a band who have been doing it a long time and that’s why they sound as polished and dynamic as they do. Nels Cline’s Fender Jazzmaster had a warm distorted bite that allowed his quick flurries to stand out above the mix. This is key for a lead guitar tone when the rest of the mix includes two other guitars and keyboards. And it’s always a welcome detail when the bass lines are as engaging as John Stirratt’s were coming from deep in the pocket.
Wilco had a lot of different motions in their sound from song to song. Keeping all of this as balanced live as they did on songs like “Muzzle of Bees,” and “Solitaire” really is a delicate art and they didn’t let the seams show onstage. They also lay down a slow introspective vibe with a soft touch on songs like “Misunderstood.” At any moment Wilco like to turn on a dime and lurch from soft to heavy. The dynamics of expansion and contraction in a well-written song are what get a band like Wilco over the rainbow on stage regularly.
My Morning Jacket hit the stage in blinding, blistering sunshine. It’s definitely a bit of a handicap for any band to have to engage the crowd while they both cope with the ongoing distraction of bright, hot sunshine. I snuck into the shady seats and totally dug their set. Most impressive was the fact that lead guitarist Carl Broemel was multi-instrumental, switching off between several gorgeous Gretsch guitars, pedal steel guitar and soprano sax. There was another sax on the opposite side of the stage that wasn’t played but MMJ’s versatility is a fine thing. Like Wilco, they also love to blend acoustic and electric guitars together live.
Being near the beginning of a long bill, MMJ had time constraints that reined them in a bit, but it was obvious that they could have run with it and glided way up there in the updraft if they’d had the time. They are a band that has been known to play for four hours at a time and stretching out is something they do beautifully. My Morning Jacket were certainly the most psychedelic sounding act on the bill, using a lot of delay on their guitars and reverb on the vocals to create some extra atmosphere. Tunes like “First Light” rocked hard, but there was plenty of room for them to soar when they opened it out. Others like “The Way That He Sings,” caught a super pretty vibe with the right blend of guitars, tempo, vocal harmony, and Mellotron. This was the sort of song that sounds so good on first listen you feel you must have heard it before. Isn’t that one of the biggest payoffs for a songwriter?
When a tour of several big-time, basically headlining acts with growing career arcs of their own join together for a tour like this, beautiful new bonds can be established between them. Everyone’s catalogue is established for the fans, and jamming and guest appearances in each other’s sets should be an added bonus for the bands and the audience. There was a lot of this going on with Bingham, My Morning Jacket and Wilco and that was a lot of fun to see. John Oates (Hall and Oates!?!) joined MMJ for an extended version of the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend” and Ryan Bingham joined all of them for a rocking version of “Baby, Don’t Do It.” Similarly, several of the guys in MMJ and Bingham again came on to join Wilco in a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.
It was a long show, well worth enduring the time constraints and bright sunlight. But I’m still not sure why they ever decided to put a nice concert facility like the Fiddler’s Green smack dab in the middle of a business park. I suppose it goes to show that the guys with the money don’t always know what they’re doing with it.
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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.