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Dylan, Mellencamp, Nelson Mine Deep Catalogs on Ballpark Tour

July 13, 2009 10:31 AM ET

In one corner of the culture, it doesn't get more quintessentially American than baseball, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan, which makes the trio's minor league ballpark tour a summer '09 essential. When the show pulled into Eastlake, Ohio, this weekend, the air smelled like a street fair: fresh-boiled hot dogs and reasonably priced drafts. The crowd standing in the outfield or sitting in general-admission seats was a mix of grandparents in polo shirts, leather-clad Hell's Angels, indie rockers in black glasses with their button-down parents and as many 10-year-olds as you'll see at a concert that's not affiliated with Disney.

At 76, Nelson is still on the road, continuing a career that's seen him write Patsy Cline's "Crazy," record with Booker T. Jones and ride shotgun with Johnny Cash. Just after 6 p.m., a giant red-white-and-blue Texan flag unfurled as Nelson sang the first words to his traditional set opener, "Whiskey River." Dressed in black from hat to boots, the Red-Headed Stranger and his band barreled through twangy versions of 20 hits and favorites in 60 minutes. Highlights included a medley of "Night Life," "Funny How Time Slips Away," and "Crazy." Fans clapped along as the big songs kept coming, like the sing-along "On the Road," a boogie-woogie take on Hank Williams' "Move It on Over," and an upbeat "Always on My Mind" with a weeping harmonica solo.

Nelson and Dylan had joined forces for a ballpark tour in 2004, but this is the first edition of the Bob Dylan Show to welcome Mellencamp, who first partnered with Nelson in 1985 for the debut Farm Aid festival. Mellencamp led his six-piece backing band — two others guitarists, standup bass, drums, violin and an accordion — through a set of hits and newer material, putting his back and knees into the show, moving like a new artist that needed to win over the older acts' fans. The set of wistful, full-tilt Americana played like a novel about heartland life in the shadow of war, faith and mortality. The singer-guitarist played an acoustic solo version of "Small Town," though most of the band's enduring singles sounded like they do on the radio: In "Check It Out," accordion plus violin equaled rock. "Rain on the Scarecrow" was menacing like a thunder cloud.

The sun went down as an announcer declared the arrival of Dylan, "the poet laureate of rock & roll." The PA system blared music that sounded like a psychedelic royal march as Dylan took the stage, leading his band out in a line. Standing front and center, guitar in hand, Dylan lunged into "Cat's in the Well."

Dylan's set lists are famously fluid, and this concert was as close to a best-of show as it gets. Most songs took on the blues-injected Texas-rock flavor of his new album, Together Through Life, though Dylan only played two songs from it ("Jolene" and "If You Ever Go to Houston"). After the first track, the singer retreated behind his keyboard but remained a commanding presence. Wearing a glowing white hat, Dylan looked like a bordertown blues sheriff as he played a harmonica solo during "Blind Willie McTell."

Dylan's voice remained raspy through the ballad "Workingman's Blues #2," an early emotional high point from a set that kept building steam. The band floored it for "Highway 61 Revisited," and Dylan's hurdy-gurdy keyboard left rubber on the road. Diehards and casual fans couldn't have asked for a better encore: an electrifying "Like a Rolling Stone," followed by the new "Jolene." And if anything could match "Rolling Stone," set-closer "All Along the Watchtower" made the play. Twenty-one years after the 68-year-old Dylan was inducted into the nearby Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he can still knock his classics out of the park.

Set Lists:
Willie Nelson (highlights)
"Whiskey River"
"Still Is Still Moving to Me"
"Beer For My Horses"
Medley: "Funny How Time Slips Away"/"Crazy"/"Night Life"/"Funny How Time Slips Away" reprise
"Me and Paul"
"Georgia On a Fast Train"
"Georgia On My Mind"
"Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys"
"On the Road Again"
"Always On My Mind"
"Hey Good Lookin'"
"Move It on Over"
"I Saw the Light"

Mellencamp:
"Pink Houses"
"Paper in Fire"
"Deep Blue Heart"
"Check It Out"
"Don't Need This Body"
"Take Some Time to Dream" (The new song's second live performance)
"Small Town"
"Rain on the Scarecrow"
"Troubled Land"
"If I Die Sudden"
"Crumblin' Down"
"Authority Song"

Dylan:
"Cat's In The Well"
"Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)"
"Rollin' And Tumblin'"
"Blind Willie McTell"
"Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum"
"If You Ever Go To Houston"
"Things Have Changed"
"Workingman's Blues #2"
"Highway 61 Revisited"
"Ain't Talkin'"
"Thunder On The Mountain"
"Like A Rolling Stone"
"Jolene"
"All Along The Watchtower"

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