Allentown's The Morning Call: Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson Perform At Coca-Cola Park In Allentown

By John J. Moser

Over uneven shows and albums over the years, fans and critics have given Bob Dylan an awful lot of benefit of the doubt, and his Tuesday night show at a sold-out Coca-Cola Park in Allentown showed why. With a career that has meant so much to so many, even mediocre performances of his songs are meaningful, and he's still capable of -- if not great shows -- great moments in shows.

Willie Nelson showed much the same thing, but if the ballpark show had a designated hitter, it was John Mellencamp.

In a 95-minute concert, Dylan sang 15 songs in the grizzly growl of a blues master, sometimes adding inflections that made it seem as if he was imparting life lessons. In a cowboy hat, he leaned into the microphone, sometimes playful, sometimes forceful, sometimes crooning.

He mixed classics with new songs, opening with animated singing on ''Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat'' and ''Don't Think Twice, It's Alright,'' then offered ''Rollin and Tumblin'' and ''Spirit on the Water.'' The best of the new was ''If You Ever Go to Houston'' -- a jaunty, almost pop song.

It helped that Dylan had a crack band, especially true on ''Highway 61 Revisited,'' when he slipped into the lazy sing-song he's sometimes adopted in more recent years. But the band was so hot and tight, it almost made up for it. Same on ''Thunder on the Mountain,'' which Dylan also helped with a couple of truly inspired phrasings. Nothing, though, could rescue ''Ain't Talkin'.''

The encore exemplified the concert: Its first song, ''Like a Rolling Stone,'' was masterful, turned from a spiteful rant into mournful rumination. The second song, ''Jolene,'' showed how slight his newer songs are in comparison. And the closer, ''All Along The Watchtower,'' showed that even when Dylan is careless with a masterpiece, it's still a masterpiece.

Of the three headliners, it was Mellencamp who hit a home run at the ballfield. With a six-piece band, he scorched the field in a 12-song, hourlong set, kicking out of the gate with a hard-rocking ''Pink Houses'' warmed by accordion, and a dream-like and introspective ''Paper in Fire'' with violin.

Then he did a slow burn, alone on acoustic guitar for ''Don't Need This Body,'' one of three songs he played from his great 2008 disc ''Life Death Love and Freedom.'' He was joined by just violin and accordion for a wonderful ''Small Town,'' on which he changed the lyrics to note that his wife, model Elaine Irwin -- a Gilbertsville native -- was 13 when he wrote it.

But the highlight was an amazing ''Check it Out.'' With the same haunting violin and accordion, it raised more chills than the night air. Then he closed with ''Authority Song'' a tune he said was ''pretty juvenile,'' but about which he said he feels the same way today as when he wrote it.

Willie Nelson's 75-minute set wasn't quite as good, but parts were. He packed in 25 songs -- tying them so close he seemed to barely breathe between them. His band often was amazing: harmonica player Mickey Raphael for sure on ''Good Hearted Woman'' and other songs, and Nelson's sister Bobbie on piano.

Nelson opened, as always, with ''Whiskey River,'' and delivered several songs in a voice that sometimes was more talking than singing, such as a medley of ''Crazy'' and ''Night Life.'' But on ''Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,'' he growled each ''Mama'' and used the same voice for ''Will The Circle Be Unbroken.'' He was equally animated on a three-songHank Williams set.

But he was better when his singing warmed. ''Help Me Make it Through The Night'' had an overriding sense of resolve. He was rich, even with vibrato, on a slow ''Always on My Mind.'' ''Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain'' was slow and heartfelt. The best was ''Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground,'' when he sang his most meaningful, with a warm Raphael harmonica.

The crowd clapped along on a short ''On the Road Again,'' and he closed with '' Georgia on My Mind'' and ''I Ain't Superman.''

Brooklyn, N.Y., quartet The Wiyos opened the show with a wonderful set of seven blues, swing, country and jug band that left the audience to relax and enjoy.

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