With a train rolling behind the stage every 15 minutes and the pungent smell of oil and hot gravel clinging to the air, it was easy to see why Bob Dylan chose to return to St. Paul’s Midway Stadium for his AmericanaramA tour with Richard Thompson, My Morning Jacket and Wilco. The unique location and heavy-hitting lineup drew Dylan’s largest crowd in over a decade (14,000 fans), and all four acts seemed to revel in the picture-perfect summer weather by delivering surprising, unforgettable sets.
Dylan was in a particularly nostalgic mood on Wednesday evening, perhaps with the experience of playing his birthplace of Duluth still lingering in his mind from the night before. After dancing through a set that included many staples from recent stops on his Never Ending and AmericanaramA tours, the 72-year-old Dylan paused in a rare moment of reflection to offer a sweet tribute to an early musical role model.
“I used to live here, and then I left,” Dylan began, causing die-hard fans to stand up straight and take notice (he usually only offers up a simple “Thank you, friends!” at shows). “I’ve played with everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna, but the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on stage with is Bobby Vee. He used to sing a song called ‘Suzie Baby.'”
He continued by telling the crowd that Vee was in attendance that night and that he wanted to dedicate a cover of “Suzie Baby” to the Fargo-born star, who was one of the first musicians to ever hire Dylan to perform while he was still living in Hibbing. In a twist of fate, Vee actually hired Dylan to play piano in his band back when Dylan was using the stage name Elston Gunn, so it was quite fitting that he chose to cover the song in an era of his career that has found him returning to the piano instead of playing the guitar.
Vee retired from performing just last year after revealing to his fans that he has Alzheimer’s disease, making the tender moment from the typically stoic Dylan all the more bittersweet. Dylan and his band’s jaunty cover of the 1959 ballad was a highlight of the set, and one of the only moments they deviated from the cabaret shuffle that defined the majority of their performance.
Other highlights of Dylan’s set included the devious “Lovesick,” which featured a wailing harmonica solo from the sprightly singer, a boogieing “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” and a reimagined version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that included one of his more imaginative piano solos. As with many shows he’s played in town in recent years, he seemed to save his best voice for the celebratory “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which served as his encore.
Prior to Dylan’s set, both My Morning Jacket and Wilco worked a few special moments into their time on stage. After delivering a fan-pleasing set that had them plucking material out of their entire catalog and even an Uncle Tupelo song (“New Madrid”), frontman Jeff Tweedy invited the members of My Morning Jacket out to do a blazing cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” (After seeing Built to Spill cover that song a number of times, I thought it could have gone on for about three times as long as it did.) And though Tweedy’s lyrics have always been what attracted me to Wilco’s recorded work, it was guitarist Nels Cline who stole the spotlight live; his solo/freakout on “Impossible Germany” was the set’s highlight.
My Morning Jacket, on the other hand, shared their spotlight with a hometown act, Duluth’s Trampled by Turtles. The two bands met last year while performing together at the Somerset Amphitheater and dueted on MMJ’s “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” They reprised that performance at Wednesday’s show, then launched into a Prairie Home-inspired cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “There’s a Higher Power” and a wrenching version of Trampled’s “Alone.” Another highlight came earlier in My Morning Jacket’s set, when the final moments of feedback in “Circuital” faded into the hum and roar of a train going past, and perfectly transitioned into their “Steam Engine.”
Guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson played the shortest set of the evening, starting off the night promptly at 5:30 p.m. and stretching four or five songs over his half-hour time slot. Sounding like a predecessor to artists like Lyle Lovett and Bruce Springsteen, Thompson’s complex guitar work shined as bright as the summer sun and had the crowd on the field transfixed.
All told it was a historic night to be in the St. Paul ballpark and one of the best executed shows of the summer so far, hands down.
Audio: Talking Dylan, Bobby Vee and AmericanaramA with Cathy Wurzer on Morning Edition, with a short clip of Dylan’s “Suzie Baby” cover from Wednesday night.
My Morning Jacket Set List:
The Way He Sings
Off the Record
Wonderful (The Way I Feel) (with Trampled by Turtles)
There’s a Higher Power (Louvin Brothers cover) (with Trampled by Turtles)
Alone (with Trampled by Turtles)
Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2.
Wilco Set List:
At My Window
Muzzle of Bees
Don’t Forget the Flowers
Trying to Break
Just That Simple
Not For the Season
Art of Almost
Cinnamon Girl (with My Morning Jacket)
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Bob Dylan Set List:
Things Have Changed
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Soon after Midnight
Early Roman Kings
Tangled Up in Blue
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Blind Willie McTell
Simple Twist of Fate
Suzie Baby (Bobby Vee)
All Along the Watchtower
Encore: Blowin’ in the Wind