While the three hours of opening music from consummate players in their own right Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and the Wiyos that preceded that moment were met with enthusiasm from the roughly 8,000-strong crowd, nothing could match the reception that Dylan received.
When Nelson emerged shortly after 6 p.m. to a light, happy crowd, the members of that troupe were wearing tie-dye shirts and "Willie braids" that were being sold at Nelson's merchandise tent. Opening with his iconic "Whiskey River," Nelson made quick work of his material, easily shifting through about twenty country-western classics during his hour-long set.
The band's sparse setup, with bassist Bee Spears holding the songs together and longtime drummer Paul English forsaking a full kit in favor of one snare drum, allowed Nelson to pretty much play whatever he wanted on the guitar, to sometimes interesting effect. On the band's take on "Me and Bobby McGee," Nelson's guitar didn't always match the band, and on the bluegrass ramble of "Bloody Mary Morning" he showcased an occasional disdain for the rhythm of the song, but his confident vocals and stage presence made up for it.
The highlight was undoubtedly Nelson's cover of "Georgia on My Mind" which was carried by Willie's aged vocals. Harmonica player Mickey Raphael added tremendously to the song with his wailing blues harp. Set closer "I Saw the Light" was a playful romp that sent Nelson away in good spirits.
Almost a complete change of pace, John Mellencamp and his six-piece band took the stage next and ripped into "Pink Houses," one of Mellencamp's most notable classic rock songs, augmented on the current tour with a fine fiddle solo from Miriam Sturm. Mellencamp's band was extremely strong, and his voice has held up well throughout the years, but at only 57-years-old he’s still a kid compared to the colleagues he shared the stage with.
But despite the strength of his band, things quickly became cheesier than Mellencamp's dance moves. As the band left the stage and Mellencamp traded his electric Telecaster for an acoustic guitar, he also traded in his classic rock’n’roll persona for a nostalgic, midlife crisis attitude. It's a bit hard to understand why Mellencamp has become so preoccupied with his own impending mortality—the theme of his latest record, Life, Death, Love and Freedom (Hear Music)—when the man who opened for him on this tour is more than 10 years his senior and is still, as appears to be the case, having the time of his life.
Mellencamp played a song he had just written, "Save Some Time to Dream," which bordered on preachy and boring. The line "save some time to dream, it might just save us all" was cringe-worthy at best and seemed more like a lecture than a poem. The midlife crisis therapy continued as he remained alone on stage and introduced "Small Town" by informing the crowd "my wife was thirteen years old when I wrote this song." Okay, then...
The acoustic portion derailed any momentum the band had accrued, and it really only got it back for an electric version of "Crumblin' Down." The predictable set closer "Jack and Diane" was a rote reading and pretty anti-climactic, as Mellencamp turned the microphone to the crowd for the iconic lines of the chorus.
After a quick equipment change, the stage went black and the anticipation rose to a fever pitch. Four full hours of tailgating through the Wiyos, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp then came to a pinnacle as the man dressed in black walked onto the stage with his white-clad band in tow and tore into an up-tempo version of "Gotta Serve Somebody" while the crowd on the field of Alliance Bank Stadium watched in awe.
Dylan opened the set on guitar, playing lead lines on both the opener and his second song, "Señor," that were a bit surprising in their complexity. After making a name for himself as an acoustic finger-picker, his limited prowess on the electric guitar was a pleasant revelation. The guitar playing was brief, as after "Señor" he switched to the keyboard for the rest of the night.
Much has been said about Dylan's voice throughout the years—how it can't stand up to the demands of the road, how he can barely even talk anymore these days, or how he could never sing well in the first place anyway—and most of those criticisms have an element of truth to them. Dylan's voice has always been an acquired taste, and on the Syracuse Chief’s home turf it was gravelly, raspy and at times hard to listen to. Coupled with his propensity toward changing up his song arrangements, it was sometimes difficult to tell what song Dylan was playing.
But since his debut album in 1962, fans have been willing to look beyond his vocal shortcomings, accepting and embracing it for its uniqueness in order to get to the words and songs beyond. Whatever people think of him as a singer, the world almost universally accepts him as a poet.
But the man isn't a bad arranger either. The swanky blues of "Million Miles" was dedicated to Walter Cronkite, and the melodic "Spirit on the Water" set a great scene on the field as the crowd sang together underneath the stars. A re-envisioned "Highway 61 Revisited" turned the song into more of a driving rock piece than the original bluesy, police-whistle version, and the slow, mournful "Nettie Moore" from his 2006 album Modern Times (Sony) proved that Dylan is still an evocative songwriter as he croaked out the lyrics.
The crowd on the field was peppered with kids on their parents' shoulders, as the adults tried to get their children to appreciate the man who they may not have another chance to see (Dylan is 68-years-old this year). Young and old alike came together to hear Dylan's music, as his words continue to echo for new generations.
An encore of his timeless epic "Like a Rolling Stone" was followed by "Jolene" and a fresh take on "All Along the Watchtower," which walked the line between the Jimi Hendrix version and his own, creating another unique interpretation of a classic.
As Dylan's set ended, the crowd, which had been split evenly between the more family-leaning stands and the party-oriented outfield, walked out together celebrating the end of a fantastic night of music. With three classic headliners, there was a little bit of music and a memorable experience for everybody to take home and cherish.