correspondent gets the tour opp of a lifetime.
BY CARL HANNI
August 4, Austin, TX: Fourteen
days into a eighteen day run with NYC’s The Wiyos across the country on the Bob
Dylan/Willie Nelson/John Mellencamp summer tour. We’re in Austin with a day
off as part of a seven day/five show Texas
mini-tour; a Texas
five-step. The band jumped off the tour last weekend for two days to fly to Portland, OR,
to play Pickathon, a study in contrasts for sure. I drove the van from Atlanta to Houston via Orange Beach, AL,
where I hooked up with the Two Man Gentlemen Band, the fill-in openers for the
tour on July 31.
Making good time, I dropped into New
Orleans for lunch at Coop’s on Sunday, which always has a good mix
of locals and tourists who have strayed in off Decatur. This is the first time I’ve been to
N.O. since Katrina; missing roofs, caved in houses and desolate looking streets
can be seen from I-10, but downtown and the French Quarter look (and smell)
pretty much the same. New Orleans is still,
blessedly, New Orleans,
in its humid, fetid, crazy-ass, dysfunctional glory.
The tour continues to unfold with its military-like
precision. The marshalling of multiple semi-trucks full of gear, rigging,
lights, staging and catering is carried out by a huge crew of road-tested
veterans, many of whom have been with the various headliners for years or even
decades. With separate production crews for Dylan, Mellencamp and Nelson, promoter
staff for each show (often the same from show to show), a huge local production
crew at each venue, plus security and catering staff AND three sets of band
members (not counting The Wiyos) this is a huge rolling operation with many intertwined parts. After 2 weeks I’m getting a
grip on who’s-who, but still find someone new to meet each day that’s been with
the tour from day one. The Wiyos, with our five guys (including myself), are
like guppies swimming with the big fish. But the tour has been great for the
band so far, and they have been getting a good response to their opening
half-hour set each night, making new friends and fans at each stop, selling CDs
and planting themselves in the mind’s eye of tens of thousands of music fans
coast to coast.
The uniformity of the production is both necessary and
terribly impressive, but the flavor of each city, crowd and venue comes through
loud and clear.
was a beautiful, urban/downtown ball park with a lively crowd that was ready to
party, rock-concert style. Afterwards the band was put up by local friends,
fellow musicians; a living room jam session kept everyone hopping till after
midnight. Simpsonville, SC, outside Greenville, was a rolling green park of a
venue in the heart of the conservative South, with a relatively sedate crowd
that seemed a little less impressed with The Wiyos than other crowds; polite
more than enthusiastic. A local evangelical gospel choir appeared backstage to
join Willie for “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and another couple of
numbers; with their black suits and shoes and starched white shirts, they hung
out outside backstage, seemingly completely peaceful in the crushing heat and
humidity. A newscaster for the local Fox News affiliate was broadcasting live
from the front gate and interviewed The Wiyos after the set for a spot on the
10 p.m. news. We camped at a local state park after the show, woken up at 7
a.m. by the first (but not the last) rain of the day. Rain has been a constant
in the last couple of weeks; there may be a day or two that it hasn’t.
The Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Alpharetta, just north
of Atlanta, was blessedly a covered venue, and afforded the band our first,
actual (air conditioned!) green room backstage, timely respite from the rain
and humidity and general funkiness of The Wiyos’ sturdy Freightliner van.
Various friends and ladyfriends of the band appeared from Asheville and elsewhere, a mid-tour
mini-reunion to help the band remember what life is like Off The Tour.
The band flew out at a very early 6 am for their shows at
Pickathon, while I drove the van to Orange
Beach for my rendezvous with
the Two Man Gentlemen Band. The venue is an amphitheatre situated in a huge
entertainment complex of shops, amusement park attractions and hotels on to the
Alabama Gulf Coast,
just off the beach. The area is incredibly lush and beautiful, half bayou and
half not, with massive, kudzu- and creeper-draped trees dwarfing everything
around. Churches in the area (and there are LOTS of churches) vie for having
the most clever slogans on their signage out front – “Here comes the Son,”
“Beat the heat: instructions inside” and more witty come-ons. It’s
nice to see a little humor mixed in with their efforts to keep us out of hell;
I wonder how many local church goers will be at the show tonight? Is this still
“the devil’s music” being played, or have we gotten past that?
The Gentlemen play a knockout set to a soggy crowd in the
persistent rain, sign CDs and give away kazoos before hitting the road for an
all-night drive to Nashville.
Willie and Mellencamp play their standard sets, Willie spreading the love like
only he can do. I finally get to see my second full set by Bob Dylan, whose
voice is pretty rough at first, but warms up after a couple of songs. The band
is incredibly tight, with guitarists Denny Freeman and Stu Kimball curling
around each other like snakes in a pit and long-time bass player Tony Garnier
swinging on the bottom end. Dylan is really mixing up the set-list from show to
show, drawing on maybe 30 + songs for the tour. Tonight he plays “It’s
Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”), “Thunder on the Mountain,”
“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and others
before the standard three-song encore of “Like a Rolling Stone,”
“Jolene” and “All Along the Watchtower.” Judging from a
couple of his splay-legged leans into his keyboard, it looks like he might be
having some fun on-stage; it’s really sort of hard to tell, though.
After a Sunday sprint in the Freightliner that took me
across parts of Alabama, all of lower Mississippi, Louisiana
and into Texas (via New
Orleans), I reach my nadir of the tour: Beaumont, Texas.
I’m sure the people of Beaumont love Beaumont, and most folks
were pretty decent all around, but I also got such the “you’re not from
these here parts” vibe from some of the locals at dinner (not the sweet
waitress, thanks hon) that I almost had to check my calendar to see what decade
Really guys: I’m not here to take, change or corrupt
anything; just passing through and spending money. If you think I’m weird, you
should see my friends. It all felt very Easy
Rider for a moment. It’s so humid that my glasses fog over when I step out
of my hotel at 7 am.
After grabbing the weary Wiyos at the Houston airport (they knocked ’em dead at Pickathon,
no sleep) we head to the beautiful (covered, thank you) Cynthia Woods Mitchell
Pavilion so they can jump back on the tour for the final twelve shows. They
play through the exhaustion for a great set to a huge crowd and we hit the road
for a late-night drive to Austin, for three evenings’ worth of respite under a
friendly roof, doing errands, hitting thrift stores, taking a dip in Barton
Springs, and chowing down on Tex-Mex cooking (including my first salsa since
leaving Tucson over two weeks ago). Time off in Austin: the perfect antidote to road burn.
Next: shows in Austin, Corpus Christi and
Carl Hanni, a music
industry publicist, record collector and club deejay based in Tucson, regularly
blogs for Blurt. Read his blog “Sonic Reducer” HERE – including the previous
(and next) installment in his Wiyos/Dylan/Nelson/Mellencamp tour diary.