Dylan surprises with clarity, bite, and drive at Susquehanna

Bob Dylan headlined Sunday's Americanarama show with Wilco and My Morning Jacket.
Bob Dylan headlined Sunday's Americanarama show with Wilco and My Morning Jacket.
Posted: July 31, 2013

The freewheelin' Bob Dylan is always good for a surprise on stage. The songwriting sage, now 72, has perplexed concertgoers by garbling his treasured lyrics and murkily arranging his hits into unrecognizable entities for better and worse.

His never-ending tour, too, has had its share of left turns, like its summer of concerts at baseball fields. This season, Dylan's touring twist came by inviting his spiritual indie-rocking children, Wilco and My Morning Jacket, to his Americanarama Festival, which made a much-anticipated stop Sunday at Camden's Susquehanna Center.

The live Dylan can be either rapier-sharp or ragingly tedious. That's the chance you take. But Sunday's show for a multigenerational crowd was among his clearest and most cutting.

It's no secret Dylan's ravaged voice can make Tom Waits sound like Mabel Mercer. Sunday's opening salvo - a shuffling "Things Have Changed," the slowly slashing "Love Sick" - found the singer in full-blown rasp while his band cooked. His jig during this opener was among several promising signs.

When he got to the plucked-banjo blues of "High Water (For Charley Patton)," Dylan took on a biting, lucid growl at the end of each verse. Taking piano for the country ballad "Soon After Midnight" (one of several songs from 2012's Tempest), he let his nasal croon briefly breathe free.

Throughout, Dylan's coy, corrosive lyrics were never unintelligible. You had to pay attention, but his love and bloodlust were evident. Just as surprising as Dylan's potent vocal clarity was the energetic inventiveness he and his band (including new guitarist Colin Linden) gave this bard's classics. "All Along the Watchtower" was drivingly bass-heavy, with a jazzy ascending piano line that lifted the chorus into an epiphany. The closing "Ballad of a Thin Man" was so hot-wired and dramatic I expected a shootout at its cinematic finale.

While this night was clearly in the service of Mr. Dylan, neither Wilco nor My Morning Jacket was a mere opening act. Each came to Americanarama with wildly appreciative fans that made the evening bristle.

Wilco, in particular, highlighted its lyrical country aspect, to go with its nervous ambient guitar work courtesy of Nels Cline. The band's finest of many fine moments were a soulful "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and a rousing "California Stars." When leader Jeff Tweedy, resplendent in a slouch fedora, sneered through "Forget the Flowers," he could have been Dylan's kid.

My Morning Jacket didn't stick too closely to its alt-country roots. Instead, guitarist/singer Jim James and company spent most of their time leaping from aggressive Who-ish jams ("leaping" is a good word, since James wore a blue magic superhero cape on his back) to soul songs. The optimistic "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" allowed James to break out his most angelic wail of the evening.

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