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Orange Beach, AL Press Register: Dylan, Nelson, Mellencamp Full Of Surprises
08.01.2009 - By Lawrence Specker

"The Bob Dylan Show," a tour that visited The Wharf in Orange Beach on Friday night, featured a lot of music from a lot of big-name artists. But it can be broken down neatly to things that did happen and things that didn't.

The biggest thing that didn't happen: On a stormy day when fans drove through occasionally heavy rains on their way to the open-air venue, the whole affair didn't get washed out.

John Mellencamp, who played between Willie Nelson and headliner Dylan, indicated that he'd been as worried as anybody. "I looked out my window today," he told the crowd, "and I said, 'Please, God, don't let it rain.' And he didn't."

Mellencamp followed that with a self-deprecating note, conceding that the almighty probably had much higher priorities than parting the clouds for this show. But part they did, as if on cue. And if the audience could see distant flickers of lightning behind the stage throughout the evening, they could also see the moon and stars in relatively clear skies overhead.

It's likely that, for a majority of the roughly 10,000 people on hand, Mellencamp's set was the best thing that did happen. In barely over an hour, he managed to showcase a muscular rock band and to work in a softer solo set; to touch many of his crowd-pleasing hits, but in a way that never seemed like pandering; and to radiate the confidence of a man who's written anthems, without being overly cocky about it.

A classic moment came when he asked the audience whether they wanted to hear an old song or a new song. "Old song" won by a wide margin, a result that he had to know was coming.

And so he sang a verse of "Cherry Bomb," an '80s ode to nostalgia, made all the more nostalgic by the fact that he sang it a capella, stripping it down to its essence. Later he would similarly reinvent "Small Town" for a solo acoustic rendition.

What didn't happen: "Jack and Diane." What did: Blazing versions of "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Crumblin' Down."

From the opening whomp of "Pink Houses" to the closing growl of "Hurts So Good," it was a set that left you wanting more.

Another thing that didn't happen: Any onstage interaction between the stars. No duets, no all-star backup vocals, no interplay, no Dylan harmonica solo on "Whiskey River." Sorry, folks.

Nelson's opening set was amiable if not electrifying. The hits certainly happened, with Nelson and the Family Band briskly reeling off popular numbers such as "Crazy," "Help Me Make It Through The Night," "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Georgia on My Mind" and the more recent "Beer for My Horses."

But he didn't stick entirely to big hits. The soft "Still is Still Moving to Me" was a pleasant surprise, as were Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" and Tom T. Hall's "Shoeshine Man."

Dylan's set, as one would expect, reflected a different approach.

The earnest balladeer of the '60s did not magically appear. The crowd at The Amphitheater at The Wharf got a pure dose of 21st-Century Bob, a grizzled observer with a wicked sense of humor, a shredded voice and a taste for raucous music that weds Nashville, Vaudeville, roots-rock and country blues.

Dylan did not stock the show with an abundance of sing-along hits. And this might have contributed to something else that didn't happen: A lot of the audience didn't stick around. A slow but steady exodus started about two songs into the set and continued to the end, draining perhaps as much as half the audience in the upper decks. (The crowd on the floor seemed more committed.)

For those who've enjoyed the albums Dylan has put out since 1997's "Time Out of Mind," however, the show couldn't have been much of a surprise, or much of a disappointment.

Songs from the 2006 collection "Modern Times" dominated the night, from the jazzy "Spirit on the Water" to the spooky acoustic meditation of "Nettie Moore" to the sly humor of "Thunder on the Mountain." At least a couple of songs from 2009's "Together Through Life" also figured in the mix.

Dylan did not, however, completely starve fans of his older material. Sometimes the old songs wore new arrangements and sometimes the vocals were particularly inscrutable, but they were in there.

"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" popped up as the second song of the set, for example. And the three-song encore started with a brash "Like a Rolling Stone" and concluded with a taut electric version of "All Along the Watchtower."

On a night when lightning flickered in the distance and thunder rolled on the stage, it made for a fitting final note.

But then, it stands to reason that Dylan knows as well as anyone alive how to make such notes happen.

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