The Virginian Pilot: Bob, Willie & John, Still Rockin'

By Carrie White

The meaning of the phrase "party like a rock star" has evolved for members of the bands in Bob Dylan's 2009 Ballpark Tour, which brings Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to Norfolk's Harbor Park on Saturday.

"Our priorities have definitely changed," Mike Wanchic, longtime guitarist and bandleader for Mellencamp, said. "When we were young, touring was an adventure and fun - it was all new. But now, we put the music first. The music is our entire focus."

Mickey Raphael, who has been the harmonica player in Willie Nelson's band for the past 36 years, said, "It's definitely a life for a 21-year-old, so we have to pace ourselves!"

Nelson is 76, Dylan is 68 and Mellencamp is 57.

Wanchic, also 57, met Mellencamp in 1976 and joined his band two years later. He said his boss is fiercely competitive. "He's called 'The Little Bastard' because he won't compromise. He won't bend. He won't do anything that isn't in the best interest of the music. That's why we're still here."

Raphael, also 57 years old, said Nelson "is like Yoda - a country version of the Dalai Lama. He's very spiritual. Sitting with him is like having an audience with Buddha. He's got a very peaceful vibe - except if you're on the golf course.

"The grandparents that grew up listening to Willie are now playing him for their grandchildren."

And some of those grandmothers are still a bit randy: "They still throw their underwear to Willie!"

Although their fans might still be tossing lingerie, the musicians have definitely settled down with age.

"When we were young, we were like cowboys coming into town," Wanchic said. "Anyone who would deny such a thing of a young man is out of his mind. But now, in terms of nonsense, there is none. It's rewarding - balanced and fun."

On the few days off he has in this six-week, 29-venue tour, Wanchic is meeting his Indiana-based family (his five children range in age from 4 months old to having graduated from law school) in New England and playing tourist.

"Sure, our bodies have aged, but I don't feel a lick older, except for some creaks in the joints. We aren't as young as we were, but then we take advantage of creature comforts, too. We fly in private jets instead of lugging a trailer behind a van." (Nelson's band travels from hotel to hotel in luxury coaches equipped with Internet and video access.)

Wanchic, who played football for Depauw University, has continued to stay in shape, as have the other members of the band: "Almost every morning I see every member of the band at the gym. We take care of ourselves."

Although golf is more popular than the gym for members of the Nelson camp, Raphael, a health-conscious biking enthusiast, agrees that life behind the stage is different now: "It used to be staying up all night, partying. When I finally decided that Keith Richards wasn't a good role model, things changed! Now, after the show, I'm in the bunk with a book."

Even the venue for the concert is family-friendly and sports-related: Harbor Park, Norfolk's minor-league baseball field.

Norfolk's director of cultural facilities, arts and entertainment, John Rhamstine, said, "We're always open to doing things other than baseball at Harbor Park."

He said that since Bob Dylan first did a tour of ballpark concerts in 2004, more artists are trying it.

"First, the rental cost of most minor league parks is less than at amphitheaters.... Also, with ballparks, there are more open dates, and operators are usually anxious to book the park."

Harbor Park has hosted other concerts in the past, although "it's a really competitive market with so many other outdoor venues in this area," Rhamstine said.

After a show the ballpark needs at least two days to get the field ready before a game, and the Tides won't be back until Tuesday.

"Ideally, we'd like to have a week, just in case there is damage done to the grass or other things like that. But these promoters know how important baseball is, and they protect the field. They are bringing their own field cover and are using plywood for the stage area," which will be in the "second base/center field area," Rhamstine said.

There will be room for plenty of families, as the Triple A park can seat 12,000 people in the stands and another 5,000 on the field. People can spread out on blankets in the grass or bring lawn chairs.

"It'll be a very relaxed atmosphere," Rhamstine said.

Music fans welcome them to town but might wonder why Bob Dylan, folk-rock poet; Willie Nelson, country outlaw; and John Mellencamp, rock ’n’ roller, are touring together, visiting minor-league ball parks.

One link is Farm Aid. Dylan, while performing during Live Aid in 1985, mentioned including help for American farmers. That inspired Willie Nelson to found Farm Aid that year with John Mellencamp and Neil Young.

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