Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and the Hot Club of Cow Town

On Madison’s far North side, out by the Mendota State Mental Hospital and a few blocks from the Northport Drive public housing projects is a little ball field, home of the extremely minor league Madison Mallards baseball club. Tonight 15,000 people ponied up about US$675,000 to share an evening’s music. The grandstand and bleachers were full, and save for a roped section of infield preserving the diamond for its

intended purpose, milling, standing, sitting, dancing people crowded the park, filled the outfield and kept their attention on a big stage at the centerfield wall.

The sun hadn’t yet begun to set and the clouds hadn’t rolled in when the show opened. The Hot Club of Cow Town took the stage at 6:30pm. We’d seen a black bus pulling a trailer that looked suspiciously musicanly as we were parking the car. I suspect these kids, a hot acoustic (if incredibly amped) trio hadn’t been in the park very long before they started playing. They opened with a toe tapper, “Ida Red,” and continued with an instrumental that had all the forties swing charm of a Garrison Kielor entr’act. They moved on through “Little Liza Jane,” another instrumental, and then “Emily,” their own composition that held on to that 40’s swing feeling.

We sat in the grandstand, too far from the stage to see anybody’s face, but also at a distance where we weren’t likely to be injured by the amplifiers. The seats had major benefits that included actual backs and arm rests, as well as elevation that permitted a view of the distant stage and plenty of people watching opportunities as people milled about in the infield, buying food and drink, shuffling past this way and that, mostly in time with the music.

A girl in a lavender top with spaghetti straps, black braids – hair pulled back from a high forehead – skin that the integument transplant specialists in Singapore are always willing to pay top dollar for, a long wrap-around skirt, and carrying a Guatemalan weave shoulder bag arrived out of a time portal from 1968.

The Hot Club continued with a dressy version of Chinatown, a train song – Orange Blossom Special maybe? I’ve been gone too long… anyway the bass player was slapping that thing most assiduously… the assumption is the guy has major callouses.

Willie Nelson comes onstage and joins them in their curtain call… “please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”

As the stage is set for the next act I notice a big WWW.WILLIENELSON.COM banner centerstage. We’ve come a long way since the first time I saw him live in the mid seventies at the Circle Star in San Carlos.

The set started with “Living in the Promise Land,” and they unfurled a huge American flag behind the band on the stage. It was easy to let a few tears down listening tom that clear idealistic tenor. Fortunately, before I could get too maudlin, they unfurled a huge Texas flag that covered the US banner and played “Whiskey River.” It was about here that I felt enormous gratitude to Tom and Monica for asking us along. Song after song… “Still is Still Moving to Me,” Beer for My Horses,” “Pancho and Lefty,” “time Slips Away ,” “Crazy” (Beth says he ain’t no Patsy Cline, but I think an argument could be made…), “Nightlife,” little sister Bobby pounding out “Down Yonder” on the big grand piano, Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” segued into an eclectic version of “Bobby McGee,” at first recognizable only by the words but somewher near Salinas the tune emerges with the lyrics and the rhythm and a big finish and the crowd loved it. “Me and Paul.” “Flooding in Texas.””Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys.” “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground. “You were Always on My Mind. “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” “I’ll Fly Away.” “I saw the Light.” And finally: “Georgia on my Mind.” Naturally with such a paucity of country music the crowd felt a little cheated and demanded an encore which the Nelson family generously provided: a solid honky tonk rendition of Hank Williams’ “Move it on Over.” This was not the last time that we’s hear canine allusions this evening.

During the little intermission, let me share an encouraginng story from before the concert, while we stood online with 14,996 other people to get in. The Nader straight edger wannabe alienated squad of incopmprehensible mofos were working the line, trying to scrounge signatures to screw up the Democrat victory that is sure to coem this November. It was heartening to hear so many people turn them down with variants on the message, “No I won’t sign. Too much is at stake.”

The Aaron Copland “Appalachian Spring” recording that was provided between acts as a little aural palette cleanser ended and Bob Dylan took the stage. Sadly, I can’t tell a damn thing about his opening number. I couldn’t understand a word he sang, and I don’t have the ouvre locked down well enough for him to get by with a signification. That said, I have a feeling he’s a little like a pro quaterback in the first quarter, wired up and throwing over his receivers’ heads. The second number was a stacatto vocal rendition of “The Times They Are A Changing,” that everyone could recognize. He went from there to “Seeing the Real You At Last,” a dark pounding musically tight number that reminded me that I’d heard he has the best band he’s ever had with him now. This of course is saying something monstrously sacrilegious to anyone who ever wore out a copy or two of Big Pink. Still, these guys are GOOD!

Next came a duet by the co-authors of the following number…

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the Heartland
And the bankers are takin’ my home and my land from me
There’s a big achin’ hole in my chest now where my heart was
And a hole in the sky where God used to be

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the Heartland
There’s a well with water so bitter nobody can drink
Ain’t no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can’t speak
Don’t they know that I’m dyin’, Why nobody cryin’ for me?

My American dream
Fell apart at the seams.
You tell me what it means,
You tell me what it means.

My American dream
Fell apart at the seams.
You tell me what it means,
You tell me what it means.

Bob Dylan followed that piece with “It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a song with the lines

But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

and everybody heard those lines, loud and clear.

Next came a personal favorite of mine: “If Dogs Run Free.” he sang it as melodiously as he did on the first recording way back when.

Yo Bruce! You’ll be interested that he sang “High Water (for Charley Patton)” from Love and Theft next. This was delivered in high mumble, but part of the experience is looking some of this stuff up for a closer reading later. He is – after all – the poet laureate of Rock ‘n Roll, and he has the poetic license to prove it.

Then reminding us that Love and Theft in a way reasserts that youthful genius with which he graced our lives, he played “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and you would recognize the words, but the music would just knock you out. Monica said that’s what happens to song in forty years.

I was sitting back and enjoying the concert by now, so my notes are less a play list tan impressions… those first eight songs were folllowed by six more: “Love Sick,” from Time out of Mind, another song that I have just spaced, “Sugar Baby” from Love and Theft, a real get down rock and roll version of “Summer Days” (Love and Theft), and the concert was drawing to a close and he sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” followed by an encore of “All Along the Watchtower.”

And I am really grateful to have been there. Thanks to Mike Golby for reminding that I should be. The demographics were a better spread than I thought… there were as many young people as old farts like me. And you know, if asked I’d have to admit that the professionalism is a small price to pay for the poetry and the music. These people know how to deliver. It was not always so. Practice lends a polish. Dylan’s choice of delivery on old standards and newer stuff is designed to engage and it does.

Willie Nelson is simply a good human being.

And these Cow Town kids… they’re coming along. I’m thinking Commander Cody. I’m thinking Asleep at the Wheel. I’m thinking LIVE MUSIC… I don’t get out enough.

Posted in Arts and Literature
6 comments on “Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and the Hot Club of Cow Town
  1. Allan says:

    Great read old fart.

    Bet Mike Golby wished he was there too.

    From another old fart 😉

  2. RageBoy says:

    YOU don’t get out enough??? Only time I ever see more than 10 people in one place is when I go to the bookstores — and none of them are tapping their feet. btw, I love that you sent this out in an email alert. my working hypothesis at the moment is that…


    chew on *that* fat fer awhile.

    meanwhile, I can’t believe you were taking such detailed notes through all that. and if you weren’t, I can’t believe you’re memory’s still that intact. whatsa matter, son, didn’t you do DRUGS when you were a young’un?

    anyway, yeah, you made me wanna be there. kudos.


  3. Betsy Devine says:

    Wish I’d been there too, it sounds like an awesome show. Mmmmm, not a very inspiring comment tho heartfelt–my daughter got married yesterday and I’m just plumb wore out having hard-work fun and hanging out my family.

  4. ray says:

    yes indeed…gotta love it!

  5. Mike Golby says:

    Hi all…

    From someone who really doesn’t get out enough, I wish I was there… I really do :).

    Frank, for all the flags and allusions to the unimpeachable but naked emperor, these old truckers really do still speak about a hell of a lot more than Ameriky. They speak to all of us and that comes through this post.

    Moreover, that so many young bands are playing their tune in their own way vindicates and offers all us old farts a lot of hope.

    Many thanks for the flashback :).

  6. Bruce says:

    I was hoping we’d get a report. I was thinking about you Friday night, cause I knew you were in for a treat. Lucky dog. I mean, that band, every bit as good at THE Band. Nah, just kiddin, that would have to be his best band, but I wasn’t around for that, but I have seen this one. They should put out a live record.



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