Review by Tony BonyataWhile the idea of honky tonk hero Merle Haggard and rock & roll demagogue Bob Dylan performing on the same bill may have seemed like mixing oil with water onstage, when the two legends performed the first of two shows at Milwaukee's Eagles Club last Friday night the pairing couldn't have worked better.
Photos of Merle Haggard by Phil Bonyata
Photo of Bob Dylan provided by Dylan fan
Both musicians were clad in black suits and black Stetson hats as if an ode to the original Man In Black - Johnny Cash. Both were friends of Cash and while Dylan saved his number "Girl From The North Country" (which he sang with the late country legend on his 1969 album Nashville Skyline) for his second Milwaukee show on Saturday, Haggard sent out a rowdy tribute on a raucous version of Johnny and June Cash's "Jackson."
While Merle's set was short, it was certainly sweet. Running through a buckshot of Bakersfield classics such "Mama Tried," "Big City," "(All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive" and the instrumental outro of his 1960s anti-hippie standard "Okie From Muskogee," the 68-year old musician was in exceptionally fine form; alternating between stinging electric guitar leads and fiery fiddle, while flashing that big, honest, irresistible smile throughout.
"Bob said he wanted a beer-joint band," the singer admitted, "and we're the best beer joint band in the world." And after witnessing Haggard's longtime touring the band The Strangers nail both hell-raising hony tonk hits and even a lovely cover of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" (from his recent collection of American standards of the same name) on the head, Dylan got what he asked for from this entertaining band.
What was somewhat surprising was the audience, who - considering the age of these two acts - consisted of many younger fans. While there were a number of rubber-jointed jam band kids dancing themselves into patchouli-soaked frenzies, there were also a good number of younger rock fans who, until that night, had no idea they'd be straddling the fence between country and rock; not knowing for sure which side they enjoyed more.
Bob Dylan may have shocked the folk world when he broke out his electric guitar during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but it seemed almost as shocking to witness the 63-year old hunched over a keyboard for the entire evening - save for a couple of times he jigged out to the front of the stage with his harmonica. While his keyboard playing may not be up to the standards of his guitar work, it was still interesting to see him in this different setting.
Far from a greatest hits set, Dylan's Friday evening performance consisted of more obscure numbers, such as the rocking "Cat's In The Well" and "Down Along The Cove," as well as a good number of songs from his two more recent albums Love And Theft and Time Out Of Mind , such as the poignant "Mississippi" and "Make You Feel My Love," as well as the vaudevillian "Floater (Too Much To Ask)" and the bittersweet "Standing In The Doorway."
With an impressive band that included the talents of fiddle player Elana Fremerman and pedal steel player Donnie Herron, who also traded off some impressive fiddle duets with Fremerman, Dylan also drastically reworked more familiar compositions such as the now country-fried "Absolutely Sweet Marie," from his 1967 masterpiece Blonde On Blonde, "Highway 61 Revisited" and the closing hit "All Along The Watchtower." While his voice rasped and creaked like an old floorboard throughout most of the evening, it also, at the same, added two smoking barrels of true American grit (which, from black rural blues to southern gospel and country, has always been coursing through the marrow of this enigmatic artist).
While this may not have been Dylan's most impressive live show of his career (give me Bob front-and-center with a guitar any day), the marriage between his rock songs flavored with the southern twang of country music and Merle Haggard's own beer-soaked western swing, nonetheless, made for a perfect union of two American greats.
Bob Dylan 04.08.05 Milwaukee Setlist
1. To Be Alone With You
2. To Ramona
3. Cat's In The Well
4. Make You Feel My Love
5. Highway 61 Revisited
6. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
7. Love Sick
8. Absolutely Sweet Marie
9. Tough Mama
10. Floater (Too Much To Ask)
11. Standing In The Doorway
12. Down Along The Cove
14. All Along The Watchtower
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