Nelson, Dylan sing up a storm in Aberdeen

Major Americana in minor-league ballpark concert

August 14, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

What happens when two major-league musical legends decide to team up for a tour of minor-league ballparks?

Sports and music fans got a good, if rain-soaked, idea Thursday night as two prolific singer-songwriters, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, took to a makeshift stage in centerfield at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium for a four-hour concert that was equal parts Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams and Hank Aaron.

The sixth stop on the duo's current 22-city tour - the seventh show is at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in Salisbury tonight - brought together fans in ballcaps and bandannas, Birkenstocks and Orioles ponchos. It was a crowd as giddy as any that ever sat through a good ballgame played under the threat of a summer downpour.

Nelson, 71, and Dylan, 63, are something like the Cal Ripkens of their business - guys who have always loved their craft enough to work at it, stay on top of their game and set a pace that startles younger competitors. Ripken, the future Hall of Famer, doesn't need to build Babe Ruth League ballparks any more than Dylan and Nelson, with 300-plus albums and 70 years of touring between them, need to be playing Altoona, Pa., or Peoria, Ill., two other towns on their current tour.

But fans are glad they're doing it. On Thursday night, it was hard to find any who didn't see the show as something like a precious gift in a plain brown wrapper. Ronnie Wright, a music producer and baseball fan who has seen Dylan more than 20 times, was among dozens who showed up hours early to tailgate.

"One thing about Bobby D," said Wright, 40, of Washington. "He might mumble, or face away from the crowd, but for him, it's not about glory; it's about music." Jazz musician Gil Engle of Reston, Va., hoisted a beer in agreement. "Never thought I'd see the man," he said. "What a great idea for talents like Dylan and Willie to come to these smaller venues."

Rob Fey, 48, of Havre de Grace, there with wife Barbara and son Ryan, 5 1/2 , couldn't have agreed more. "We wouldn't have driven all the way to Baltimore for this," he said, "but it was in the neighborhood, the ballpark creates a family atmosphere, and [all kids 12 and under] got in for nothing."

As storm clouds thickened before the opening curtain, Patricia Buchanan, 61, and her mother, Nellie Scotten, 79, both Nelson fanatics, were glad to be in a dry spot beneath an overhang as they looked forward to some old favorites. "I've always loved `On the Road Again,' " said Scotten, a Havre de Grace resident. "So has my grandson, Tony. He's here tonight."

As the warmup act, The Hot Club of Cowtown, took the stage in 6:30 twilight, an American flag approximately the size of the stage snapped and rippled in the wind. Before the band could play a note, a thunderclap cued a downpour that chased most of the 6,000-odd fans to the shelter of concession stands. For half an hour, rain spattered the gray tarp that covered the infield, but at length a smiling Nelson emerged like a musical Noah, hoisting his familiar acoustic guitar to kick-start a dreamy "Livin' in the Promised Land."

The audience didn't seem to mind the on-again, off-again drizzle, but when the stage amps sputtered, and Nelson appeared to be strumming and singing in silence, a smattering of boos from the stands called to mind the fans of a last-place baseball team.

But give an All-Star a broom handle, and he'll figure out how to hit. Sizzling guitar work from Nelson's son, Lucas, finally pierced the confusion, and the surprisingly energetic band brought to life songs from across the musical landscape, including "Milk Cow Blues," "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away." As night fell and the rain came down, Nelson led his troupe through a merry medley of chart-toppers ("I Saw the Light," "On The Road Again").

The show started to find a rhythm as Dylan took the stage behind a set of keyboards. His joker-like visage filled the park's video screen as he lit into a thrumming, high-energy rock 'n' roll set.

Sounding a bit like Louis Armstrong with a head cold, he croaked a bluesy "Cold Irons Bound," barked a soulful "Sugar Baby" and choked out a version of "Highway 61 Revisited" made more deeply apocalyptic by the growing downpour. As he paddled up alongside "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," Armageddon and Abner Doubleday shook hands.

"I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warning," Dylan growled with a devilish grin as two fans slipped past security guards, scampered onto the infield tarp and slid into a puddle, rain-delay style, to the cheers of the crowd.

M-0

As the show ended and the lights came up, hundreds in slickers and ponchos shook off water and headed for the exits. But Nellie Scotten and Patricia Buchanan, the Havre de Grace mother and daughter, sat under the overhang, completely dry.

They were glad to hear "On the Road Again," they said. "He plays every kind of music," said Nellie. "Gospel, country. Willie's always good."

At the mention of Dylan, though, the two scrunched their faces and gave voice to a question as enduring as the blues, as American as the national pastime.

"His music was good, I guess," said Buchanan, "and I don't want to complain, but I couldn't understand a word that man said. Could you?"

Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson

Where: Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, Salisbury

When: Tonight at 6:30

Tickets: $45; children 12 and under free if accompanied by an adult ticketholder

Call: New Era Tickets at 877-639-3728 or, for special food or group packages, call 410-219-3112

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