“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan famously sang in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And Dylan doesn’t need a marketing guru to know how to draw a big crowd in the Twin Cities.
After touring in recent years with such veterans as Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Mark Knopfler as opening acts, Dylan dialed up two of the best live indie-rock bands of this century, Wilco and My Morning Jacket, to join him for this summer’s Americanarama Tour. One result was a sold-out Midway Stadium on Wednesday night in St. Paul, with more than 14,000 people — Dylan’s largest crowd in the Twin Cities since 1999 when he teamed up with Paul Simon at Canterbury Park.
The formula was can’t miss: a great guitarist (Richard Thompson), a great frontman (My Morning Jacket’s Jim James), a great live Americana band (Wilco) and the most celebrated living American music icon (Dylan).
It turned out to be five hours of wordy songs, expressive solos and hipster cool — whether you had tattoos and a craft-brew T-shirt or gray hair and sandals.
That’s not to say that Dylan lived up to everyone’s expectations. He never does. Few of the concertgoers — the average age was probably early 40s — recognized the opening notes of even his most-famous songs. For instance, no one cheered until he got to the refrain of “Tangled Up in Blue,” one of his bigger radio hits.
His stature as a songwriter is unimpeachable but his voice, at 72, remains an acquired taste. It’s hopelessly croaky and Wednesday, he sang with nuance and feeling but not much oomph. The band and vocalist were on the soft and mellow side, a bit like a lounge jazz act on a dimly lit stage.
Dylan did get a little worked up for “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall,” starting with slow and syncopated vocal phrasing before getting punchy with his lyrics and delivering a piano passage that was as soothing as a warm summer rain.
The bard from Hibbing did throw a curveball. Saying he’s been onstage with everyone from Mick Jagger to Madonna, he said none was more important than Bobby Vee, the Fargo rocker who gave Dylan his first paying job as a teen. So Dylan offered Vee’s 1959 regional hit, “Suzie Baby.” It was easily his most heartfelt vocal of the night — and as much of a surprise as a rarity.
To the disappointment of the crowd, none of the other Americanarama musicians sat in with the master. Guys from My Morning Jacket joined Wilco for a spicy cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” and Trampled By Turtles, the Duluth bluegrass-folk ensemble, played three songs with My Morning Jacket — MMJ’s “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” the gospel-grassy “There’s a Higher Power” and the Turtles’ local hit “Alone” — which turned out to be the evening’s highlight.
Thompson’s set was too short but he did give a taste of his guitar prowess. MMJ’s James was the night’s most exciting performer, a tornado of emotion with leonine locks, a flying V guitar and a purple jacket worn like a cape. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy may have asserted himself as the second best songwriter on the stage but what made his twangy Americana group a treat was the guitar work of Nels Cline.
The only collaboration with Dylan was a train engineer who, while passing by the stadium, blew his whistle three times near the beginning of “All Along the Watchtower.” That wasn’t part of the plan but it was an indelible Dylan moment.