It's a little strange to think of Bob Dylan as an opening act. When he hit the stage promptly at 6 p.m. at the Portland Meadows racetrack -- the first show of a long tour with Phil Lesh -- many concert-goers were still stuck in traffic. So the one time it seemed the show would be running on Grateful Dead time, it actually began as if Dylan was trying to impress a girlfriend's parents with his punctuality. Dylan and Lesh are alternating positions throughout the tour; to find out who will open or close on a particular night -- and avoid unpleasant surprises -- you can check Dylan's 2000 Tour Guide (www.execpc.com/~billp61/dates.html#0616).
Dylan began with an acoustic sequence featuring four covers and two originals. The originals, "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Mama, You Been On My Mind," exemplified the two types of songs he now performs live. The former was a shopworn, somewhat overplayed selection that is best retired, while the latter was a rare fruit plucked from hundreds of interesting or unusual songs he has written though the years. Lately the balance varies from night to night. At this show, the song selection was fairly mundane, aside from a hot version of "Drifter's Escape" and a hard rocking version of "Country Pie" (imagine that!), which left the vocal affectations of "Nashville Skyline" behind.
Dylan's regular four-piece backup was loud and propulsive, but this night, his voice was in fine form, unlike some recent shows where the instrumental power exceeded his vocal abilities.
Dylan left the stage after playing just an hour, but returned for another thirty minutes in a long set of encores. This is Dylan's way, and is a masterful example of audience manipulation. The band would move around between songs as the cheers would increase, fearing that each song would be the last. However, when the set finally did close down, it was a little anti-climactic.
The most visually challenging part of Dylan's set came from offstage; sign language interpretation from Patrick Ladd. A British Ph.D. in Social Sciences who flew in specifically to sign for three shows, Ladd provided a more animated interpretation of the songs. To see him sign the key line from "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat -- "It balances on your head like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine" -- beat watching Dylan mouth those words for the millionth time.
Lesh began his set with "St. Stephen," soon rolling into a series of semi-improvised instrumentals before coming out through the other end and crashing into cacophony. The instrumental passages were unpredictable and varied. Often times the band was tight and focused, but would soon fall apart and seem to be playing different songs. Then they would pull it back together again and lurch toward some kind of conclusion. Some of it was pretty dreadful, but the crowd seemed to love it anyway.
Lesh wound down after forty-five minutes and seemingly crashed to a close, but the music never really stopped. He then tore into a raucous version of the Band's "Rag Mama Rag," sung by guitarist Paul Barrere, and started the whole cycle all over again. Barrere and keyboardist Bill Payne, both on loan from Little Feat, hinted that the show would become a little more buttoned down than your average Grateful Dead adventure. But it soon became clear that this was Phil's party and he'd play loud, incomprehensible instrumentals if he wanted to. The Lesh combo was rounded out by jazz guitarist Robben Ford and John Molo, a solid drummer whose horse-like effects underscored the on-the-run aspect of "Friend of the Devil."
Close to two hours after taking the stage the music actually stopped, and the silence was something of a shock. Lesh introduced the band and led them through a spirited "Box of Rain" and then left the stage for good. There was no Lesh/Dylan cross-pollination, but none was promised and it wasn't really missed. These two veterans gave us enough joyful noise on this evening, though neither made an effort to offer any more than what was expected of them.