Sunday night's Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan gig out at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion was an exhibition for an artist in his comfortable twilight, another on the cusp of a new revolution and the last one stoically fighting the violent currents of the wake he created nearly six decades before. Lately we have been studying the longevity and aging of popular rockers, mainly because so many seem to be darkening Houston's doors as of late. The gift and the curse of having a bill such as this that each guy is steadfastly revered for their core "classic" catalog, but yet all three are still practicing artists and musicians who still feel the need and have every earthly right to create new music. Aftermath loves that each of these gentlemen can now and then still be found in a studio bashing out compositions this far into each man's game. But to the audience at last night's nearly sold-out Houston stop on the "Bob Dylan Show" tour, new music from any of these legends, or hell, just reworked old stuff, was shunned and thrashed. Willie Nelson offered no surprises, but that's not what has made him who he is. What Nelson actually is is a Texas landmark, which has shaped and cultivated almost every major roots artist from El Paso to Beaumont, and Denton to Falfurrias with his songwriting and easy hand.
We know he will open with "Whiskey River." We understand we will hear monolithic slabs of uber-twang about blue eyes, roads and babies. For all the sublime simplicity and shear grin-inducement that Nelson offered up, it also gave casual fans of the next two artists a false comfort that they would be in for dueling live greatest hits collections. Anyone keeping score for the past 20 years of Mellencamp and Dylan's respective careers don't need degrees on Rock Nerdery 101 to deduce that both of their recent outputs have been anything but not challenging and artistically compelling. Simply put, if you call yourself a dedicated fan of either Zimmy or the Cougar (both limiting names in their own right) you can't argue that they have still been making valid music on their own terms, iTunes downloads and any other doe-eyed hallmarks of 21st-century success be damned.
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John Mellencamp has evolved into a grizzled and weathered troubadour, a sort of Springsteen without the family circus in tow. Somewhere along the way, maybe after he dropped the "Cougar" moniker - or hell, maybe after 1985's Scarecrow - things that started getting real for Mellencamp and he threw off all the bullshit. Either way, the man now plays with a new heft and swagger. Songs like "Pink Houses" and "Small Town" that are so prevalent on happyfuntime FM radio are now played with an extra weight. Instrumentation is way more organic and devoid of flash, save for the fiddle histrionics of one Miriam Sturm, who looks like Ursa from Superman II after a few months of pilates. It was during Mellencamp's set that we first saw people walking away and not exactly coming right back. The man did not come out to a rocking beat and swiveling his hips. He came out like a prize fighter armed with a Telecaster, playing what he wanted how he wanted. Obviously as we said earlier, this particular crowd was not in the mood for whims of artistry and juxtaposition of catalog. Anyone who went on an extended piss break would have missed the goth-blues of "Don't Need This Body". It was telling when Mellencamp, solo and armed with an acoustic, if they wanted to hear something new or old, and they mildly booed at the concept of "new". In this new climate of economic hysteria and left and right propagandizing the closing "Authority Song" is ever more thrilling. Authority of any kind, just as Joe Strummer always said, has no inherent wisdom. After Mellencamp, a quiet hush came over the world in the Woodlands as the spirit of Dylan descended. People actually came back to their seats and the Dylanologists settled in with cell phones and various covert apparatuses to document another visit by the man. The smell of incense burning from the stage in buckets set the mood. His stage set is minimal, offering little more than his newfound keyboard, guitarists, drums, and a pedal steel play. Who knew all he needed was burning aromatics to do his magic? Opening with "Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat" from Blonde On Blonde, the gunfighter-outfitted Dylan set the course for the night. The song had little in common with the 1966 version, and it was tinted with the patina of his earthy dancehall work of the past decade. "It Ain't Me Babe" went the same route, to the delight of fans like Aftermath and his guest. Not so much for some of the assembled crowd. Sticking around for song three, "Rollin' and Tumblin'", reaped the first rewards of the night, as the man moved over to keys for the track from 2006's Modern Times to play the proto-blues dirge. And maybe that's when the tone shifted for the crowd. Not only was he not trotting out the greatest-hits set he has always been allergic to, he was playing forbidden new material which casual oldies radio fans were also similarly allergic to. The damning "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" didn't help matters for fair-weather fans that had never anything from 2001's "Love And Theft" album. Dylan and band played "If You Ever Go To Houston", and was summarily rewarded with a massive walk-out by prickly fans. Mind you he had not played this song in weeks. Hell, just stay seated to at least hear the man sing about a lawless H-Town, which in some ways isn't so different then the one you live and work in. Aftermath just doesn't understand literally turning your back on Dylan. We understand the random potty break, but walking away out of boredom seems verboten. But that's probably why we have the job we have. At the end of his career, it seems fitting that he is still roughing up the egos of people who came to him for some sort of personal gratification but instead get something they weren't expecting. Hello Newport Folk Festival, whereas here Dylan goes obscure and esoteric instead of electric. "When The Deal Goes Down" is quite simply one of the sweetest and most endearing of the newer Dylan works, setting politely next to tracks like "Make You Feel My Love". The song is all swaying girls in old school linen dresses and summer breezes, perfect for the night the Lord gave us Sunday night.
"Highway 61 Revisited" is one of Aftermath's favorite Dylan songs, which probably now reach into the upper double digits. Its manic blues vibe was only escalated by the man's backing band and his keyboard stabbings, and his increasingly indiscernible croak. To hear the opening snare crack of "Like A Rolling Stone" is to modern rock and roll what "In The Beginning..." is to biblical scholars. Aftermath seemed to levitate as he heard that first salvo of the encore. People stood at attention immediately and Dylan noticed playing harder and cleaner as the song went on. The empty seats around us rattled with his voice and he smiled a time or two at the folks who suddenly reappeared from beer stupors and smoking pits away from the stage. Closing with a swamp-ass version of "All Along The Watchtower" Dylan glued those last few left to the ground, damning traffic of the pedestrian and four-wheel kind. It paid off, as the man played the song just as he meant to always sound, in the same spirit that he has always had. Dylan never walked away from us; he just asked if we wanted to walk next to him. And Aftermath doesn't mind wandering with an artist that can dwarf the word "legend" with just a wink and a smile.