ROAD-DOGS, HEAT, AND VINTAGE GEAR: Wiyos on the Dylan/Nelson/Mellencamp Tour

Our Blurt correspondent gets the tour opp of
a lifetime.

 

BY CARL
HANNI

 

July 27, outside Duck, Outer Banks, NC: Leaving
New York City four days ago in a driving rain, the signs of rock ‘n’ roll start
immediately, with billboards for Creed and AC/DC. If this is a signifier of some
sort, it’s a bit obtuse: we’re off for 2 1/2 weeks of touring, and there will
be some rock ‘n’ roll, but little of the hard-rock varietal.

 

I’m
here on a 17 day run with The Wiyos, NY-based vaudevillian string band
extraordinaire. They are booked to play 28 out of 33 dates as the opening act
on the Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp summer tour, which started
in Sauget, IL,
July 2, and finishes in Stateline,
NV, August 16. With a couple of
exceptions, the tour is playing minor league ball parks/stadiums all across the
country. I jumped on the tour five days ago, in Lakewood, NJ, and will ride it
through the show in Dallas (really Grand Prairie) TX August 7, as Wiyos tour
manager, publicist, merch wrangler and all-around boy-Friday. I’m delighted to
be here in such fine company and out of my scorching home base of Tucson. Not that it’s
much cooler out here, as I soon realize…

 

The
Wiyos played to a remarkably enthusiastic bunch of die-hards the other evening at
First Energy
Park in Lakewood, bunched up in front of the stage
trying for some respite from the downpour, faces framed by a rainbow coalition
of colored ponchos and soggy cowboy hats. The Wiyos have 1/2 hour every tour
stop, from 5:30 till 6 pm, to play, make new fans, greet friends from the stage
and put in a plug for their new CD. Then there’s a quick 10 minute turnaround
before Willie Nelson takes the stage for an hour, followed by John Mellencamp,
followed by Bob Dylan. The exact same routine every show, different venue, for
6 weeks. The whole production is as smooth and tight as a long-running Broadway
show or a military parade. This is a professional operation in every possible
detail.

 

After
three shows (Lakewood, NJ;
Aberdeen, MD,
outside of Baltimore; and Norfolk, VA),
truisms and patters quickly manifest. For one thing, the catering is
incredible. Cast and crew are fed lunch and dinner every day, and it’s had to
overstate how great the spread is. Copious, endless amounts of tasty, healthy
and inventive food, drinks and deserts appear twice daily, including fruit,
cheeses, coffee and teas, soup, salads, cold drinks, multiple deserts,
vegetarian fare, vitamin supplements and more. I mean, really.

 

So
far, the crowds have really been digging The Wiyos. They generally play to
600-800 concert-goers in front of the stage, with thousands more filing in and
spread around the bleachers. Most in the crowd may not know who they are coming
in, but they sure do going out, and CD and t-shirt sales have been steady. The
Wiyos, versed in everything from busking on street corners to playing to
sit-down crowds in theaters, know how to work a crowd, and needless to say they
are making the most of a fortunate situation that most other acts would love to
find themselves in. They do what they need to do and what they have been hired
to do: connect with the crowd and warm them up, give them a taste of what they
are all about (think a 1930’s vaudeville act crossed over with a modern take on
old-timey music), then bust everything off the stage lightening fast and make
way for Willie. Come back the next day and do it again.

 

For
the most part everyone on the tour (to one degree or another) is friendly,
helpful and supportive. Production and promotion staff, stage crews, sound and
security are all working like clockwork. As the next act up after The Wiyos, we
see lots of Willie’s people, especially his stage crew and harmonica player
Mickey Raphael, a prince of a guy. Members of Mellencamp’s and Dylan’s band
have been stopping by to chat and talk shop. The Wiyos definitely have a curiosity
factor going for them: who are these young lads with the vintage clothes,
washboard, standup bass, steel and resonator guitars?

 

Willie’s
show is as loose, casual and intimate as a camp-fire sing-along for 10,000
people. He plays the hits (“Crazy,” “Nightlife,” “Whiskey River”) and the crowd sings along
and revels in his Willienesss. Willie Nelson occupies a completely unique space
in the popular culture, and it is this: EVERYONE digs Willie Nelson. How does
he do this, the great leveling of all the country into his corner?

 

Well,
he’s WILLIE NELSON, and no one else is. As has been pointed out over the years,
he could probably run for president and win in a landslide.

 

John
Mellencamp’s show is rocking. The
volume goes up – way up – when he takes the stage, and all of a sudden we’re at
a rock concert. Girls in halter-tops
and skin tight jeans suddenly appear, butts suddenly begin to boogie. This guy
has enormous populist appeal, a bunch of hit songs that are also cultural
signifiers, and an ace band. When he’s not on stage he hangs out in his
Airstream trailer (the one with the motorcycle in front) in the holding area in
back.

 

I’ve only
seen one entire Dylan show so far, in Norfolk.
We watch the show with The Maybelles, friends of The Wiyos that appeared just
in time for the beginning of his set. Bob looks incredibly natty in his
tailored country gentlemen attire and white, flat-brimmed hat. His band, a casually
road-worn bunch of veterans, is almost as sharp in matching white jackets and
black hats. Dylan’s voice is somewhere between well seasoned, ragged and
deliciously ravaged in a sexy, older guy kind of way. In Norfolk he kicked in
with “Rainy Day Women # 12 and 35” from Blonde on Blonde; in Aberdeen it was “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box
Hat” from that same joyful record from 1966, a good sign for sure.
Tonight’s songs run from older numbers like “Highway 61 Revisted,”
“It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Like a Rolling Stone” to more
recent ones like “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and “Tweedle Dee and
Tweedle Dum” plus “Jolene” (from his new Together Through Life CD).

 

The
title seems telling; if there’s anyone we’ve been together through life with in
America,
it’s Bob Dylan. He switches from guitar to keyboard; he cues his band with
glances; he does not, of course, address the audience. Dylan’s “stage
presence” in front of an audience is much like it is off stage, an
impenetrable wall that only lets out or takes in exactly what Dylan chooses.
He’s earned the right to be and do exactly as he chooses to be and do. The
quality of his song-writing both over the years and in the last several years
pretty much puts him beyond reproach. 
What you take away from one of these shows is in a large part determined
by what you bring to it; he’s certainly not going to tell you what to feel or
think.

 

We’re
here on the coast relaxing with a couple of days off before picking up the tour
again tomorrow in Durham.
Will report more down the road.

 

***

 

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 next installment in his
Wiyos/Dylan/Nelson/Mellencamp tour diary.

 

 

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