in performance: americanarama festival

americanarama festivalYou sensed Bob Dylan was inadvertently tempting fate last night as the Americanarama Festival of Music hit Riverbend in Cincinnati.

Seriously, in a holiday weekend that resembled monsoon season, was it really that keen an idea to the play apocalyptic High Water, even if its stormy temperament was buffered by strains of banjo from BR5-49 alumnus Donnie Herron, or the classic A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, even if the 72 year old Dylan transformed the tune into a fractured waltz?

Jeff Tweedy, who preceded Dylan with a comparatively streamlined set by Wilco, seemed to be the more favored rock ‘n’ roll meteorologist. “Maybe the sun will shine today,” he sang to considerable audience cheers during the set opening Either Way. “The clouds will blow away.”

In effect, that’s what happened. While a steady rain greeted patrons when Americanrama got underway 15 minutes ahead of the announced start time (meaning Richard Thompson fans, even the punctual ones, missed half of his opening set), a second band of storms scheduled to slam into the venue skipped to the south. The result was a relatively dry and safe setting for the 5 ½ hour festival. Why waste time here musing over the weather report? Trust me, if you have ever seen what happens when the river crests at Riverbend you would understand.

Headliner Dylan was in typically opaque form, shuffling through a set of severely revamped classics, some of which were sublime (like the dark reggae turns that kept Love Sick sounding so vital). Others were total train wrecks, as in Tangled Up in Blue (which seemed to leave guitarist Charlie Sexton, who rejoined Dylan’s band last week after the sudden departure of Duke Robillard in the wind).

Dylan, as always, acted as if he had no one to please but himself. That’s not to stay his performance stance was at all arrogant. It was merely isolated – almost withdrawn. If anything that only added to the sullen drama behind a trio of tunes from his 2012 album, Tempest (there he goes with the weather again). Topping that lot was Early Roman Kings, which more than ever revealed a loose Muddy Waters blues feel. Just as thrilling was Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ (from 2009’s Together Through Life), which was performed as a sort of psychedelic tango that brought to mind Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

Neither Wilco nor Louisville’s My Morning Jacket, which preceded Tweedy and company, had new albums to showcase. So their respective 70-plus minute sets went heavy on familiarities.

Wilco’s performance was the more far-reaching of the two, starting with a selection of quieter, more wistful tunes that had handfuls of patrons near the front of the stage calling for more volume. “Hey, I’m not here to entertain you,” Tweedy replied in a mock scolding tone. He then led Wilco into Art of Almost, which culminated in a feisty jam driven by an unyielding snare slam from drummer Glenn Kotche and a mounting guitar squall from Nels Cline.

Tweedy’s crowd statement after this little musical riot subsided: “Can you hear us now?”

Jim James, looking more than ever like a younger, hairier David Crosby, injected My Morning Jacket’s set with the requisite vocal wails and reverb that set the neo-psychedelic tones of the opening Circuital and It Beats 4 U while Carl Broemel supplied much of the band’s guitar ammo, including subtle, colorful pedal steel during Wonderful. The succession of finale riffs closing out Gideon got to be a bit self-involved. But that was a minor quip in this fine return-to-duty set by Kentucky’s most prominent rock export.

Thompson’s set – brief and schedule-challenged as it was – was still a dandy. It consisted of three songs from his new Electric album that efficiently underscored his narrative strengths as a songwriter and two oldies – Tear Stained Letter and You Can’t Win – that let Thompson the guitar demon loose. Merry, but remarkably unflashy instrumental fireworks ensued.

The highlights, as is always the case in festival settings, came when the artists joined forces. Dylan, not surprisingly, kept to himself. But all of Wilco crashed My Morning Jacket’s set for a cover of George Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity with James and Tweedy exchanging verses.

The killer moment, though, came when Thompson sat in with Wilco to resurrect his 1970 Fairport Convention jam Sloth and engage in some deliciously ferocious guitar sparring with Cline. That’s when Americanarama hit the jackpot.

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