Dylan headlines SPAC festival after
Levon Helm from the shadows
By John W. Barry • Poughkeepsie Journal • August 18, 2008
Tucked behind a massive beam that supported a wall and hid him from
view, standing anonymously in the dark just a few feet from
thousands who might have kneeled at his feet or trampled him if they
knew he was there, watching an old band mate perform new songs, pop
culture icon, musical legend and former Woodstock resident Bob Dylan
Sunday night joined the crowd at Saratoga Performing Arts Center as
they watched former Band drummer Levon Helm during the inaugural
Saratoga Music Festival.
performance at the outdoor amphitheater north of Albany followed
sets by Conor Oberst; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; Steve Earle;
and The Swell Season, which is fronted by the Academy-Award winning
duo of Glen Hansard of the Irish band, The Frames, and Marketa
Irglova. Dylan and his five-piece band played after the Levon Helm
Band, a 13-piece ensemble that has fueled a monster comeback for the
Arkansas native and voice behind most of The Band’s hits.
Helm had the crowd dancing in the aisles during “Ophelia,” and
dancing on the lawn during “The Shape I’m In,” two Band staples that
are signature songs for the Levon Helm Band.
But the crowd expressed as much interest in “Got Me A Woman,” a
bouncy, roots-based acoustic song from Helm’s 2007, Grammy-winning
CD, “Dirt Farmer.”
As the crowd watched Helm and his band perform “Got Me A Woman,”
Dylan watched as well, barely identifiable in the dark as he stood
stage left, on a grassy hill in a restricted area off a wide
walkway, near where tour buses came and went all day.
Anyone in the section of seats closest to Dylan could have tossed
him a grapefruit, he was that close. People in the same backstage
area from which Dylan watched milled about around him, and moved
past him, as if they did not know the legend was a mere few feet
Dylan’s interest in Helm’s set was likely very high. Helm, bassist
Rick Danko, guitarist Robbie Robertson, keyboard player Garth Hudson
and pianist Richard Manuel backed Dylan decades ago, after the
famous folk singer opted for an electric backing ensemble. Also,
Larry Campbell, Dylan's guitarist for eight years, is now a member
of the Levon Helm Band.
Helm and his band mates were playing a bar on the Jersey Shore in
the 1960s when Dylan asked them to back him up. The boys in the
backing band eventually joined Dylan in Woodstock, embarked on their
own career as The Band and released records — “Music from Big Pink”
and “The Band” among them — that are considered musical milestones
in the evolution of rock music.
Dylan joined Helm and Danko on stage in New York City in 1983, for
an impromptu set; and Helm and Dylan saw each other again in 1992,
during a Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. Also, Dylan
sat in with a reformed Band during a performance at President Bill
Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
Earlier Sunday, from the backstage area where Dylan later watched,
yet in clear view of the public, Oberst watched Earle’s set, and
Earle watched The Swell Season play “Falling Slowly,” from the film,
“Once,” which earned Hansard, from Dublin, and Irglova, from the
Czech Republic, the 2008 Oscar for Best Song.
Hansard during the afternoon — for a long while — sat on the same
hill from which Dylan watched Helm play. Hansard was easily
identifiable from where the public took their seats inside the SPAC
Dylan did not make himself obvious, but if you knew he was there,
you could have seen him in plain sight, albeit in the dark.
Dressed in a top with a hood that he did not wear; and a hat that
resembled a beret, was hard to identify in the dark, but was nowhere
near as ostentatious as the bolero he wore on stage, Dylan stood
expressionless and motionless as he paid strict attention to the
Levon Helm Band’s set.
Any doubt that this figure in the dark was Dylan was erased by the
white stripe on the outside of his left pant leg, a familiar sight
for anyone who has seen Dylan perform in recent years. The white
stripe on the dark pants is part of Dylan's on-stage costume, which
typically features a cowboy hat and suit right off a late 1800s
Dylan was only seen watching “Got Me A Woman,” the a cappella dirge,
“Anna Lee,” from “Dirt Farmer,” and “Rag Mama Rag,” a rollicking
Band song that features a tuba solo.
The legendary songwriter from Minnesota, who lived in Woodstock for
several years in the 1970s and has returned to the Hudson Valley
three times since Feb. 2006 for private rehearsals at the Bardavon
1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, was surrounded by three
bodyguards. He left during “Rag Mama Rag” with one bodyguard and
disappeared behind a tour bus.
Dressed like a riverboat gambler, Dylan took the stage just before
10 p.m. and launched into an explosive “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat,”
which opened a more than 90-minute set that featured “Stuck Inside
of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” “It’s Alright Ma I’m Only
Bleeding,” Like A Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ In the Wind.” As he
has done for years, Dylan reworked many of the arrangements, but
delivered straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll.
Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band evoked the 1960s British invasion
with their look, but called on the spirit of Woody Guthrie with a
real gem of a tune called "Moab," built around the soothing chorus
of "There is nothing that the road cannot heal." In between swigs of
Miller Lite beer — from a can — Oberst got the most out of SPAC's
great acoustics by playing great song after great song.
Welch's summer dress complemented nicely the warm breezes and
towering evergreen trees that SPAC's lawn is famous for, and she and
Rawlings provided lilting, lumbering, acoustic tunes that seemed to
sit just fine with the crowd.
Technical problems delayed The Swell Season's set, and Hansard lost
power during his first song. That didn't affect him all that much,
as he simply leapt to the edge of the stage and kept playing, much
to the delight off fans who couldn't hear him but screamed out their
love for him nonetheless.
The duets that Hansard and Irglova sang were of another world — the
sound of two people singing with one set of vocal chords. They were
quite a contrast to Dylan, who sang staccato on his best performance
of the night, "Desolation Row," injected vocal inflections that rose
and fell from line to line, word to word and syllable to syllable,
and roared into the microphone as though he had downed a flask full
of lighter fluid prior to taking the stage.
It's hard to imagine anyone would disagree with the assertion that
the emotional high point of the evening came during the last song of
the Levon Helm Band's set, which traditionally closes with the Band
classic, "The Weight."
Levon and his gang were joined on stage by Hansard, Earle, Welch and
Earle growled his way through the "Crazy Chester" verse, and
everyone did their best to keep up with Helm, who dug deep inside to
"Take A load off Fanny."