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American legends play at the Cove

Maria Smith | Tuesday, August 24, 2004

What’s more American than beer, hot dogs and baseball?How about drinking beer, eating hot dogs and listening to Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan in a baseball park?It is rare for any ballpark like Coveleski Stadium to see an artist as big as Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan play a show. Either artist could play a larger venue in Chicago or New York with ease. But at Sunday night’s concert, it was obvious that the home of the South Bend Silverhawks was an inspired venue for this show.Nelson and Dylan do not have the edge of newer groups, and Dylan may have lost some of the fire of his early performances, but the crowd reaction was a tribute to how much their work has affected the new performers of today. Where many artists attract a limited, albeit loyal crowd, Covaleski stadium was filled with fans of every age and every walk of life. Middle-aged Texas natives carried novelty Willie Nelson license plates past children in Bob Dylan shirts, South Bend natives approaching their 70s and students in Notre Dame T-shirts. Outside the ballpark there may be little in common between the people who turned out for the concert, but just like baseball, Nelson and Dylan bring Americans together in a way few things can.The choice to have the two singer/songwriters tour together was as innovative as the idea of taking the tour to minor league baseball parks in cities like South Bend, Peoria, Ill. and Rochester, Minn. Like performances by Billy Joel and Elton John, who have performed together many times in the last decade, Nelson and Dylan together is something which any fan of either would be loathe to miss. Sunday night’s performance opened with a group that, in sharp contrast to the headlining acts, is still working to expand their musical reputation and develop their talent. Hot Club of Cowtown, a group from Austin, Texas, has toured across the U.S. and internationally, and was asked to open the shows after Dylan saw the performers on television during one of their performances in Europe. Opening for either artist would have been a dream for the group, and the chance to play with two famous artists is an exciting chance for Hot Club to get some exposure to a wider fan base.Hot Club’s Western swing sound, not to be confused with bluegrass, set the mood for Nelson and Dylan very well. Although violinist Elana Fremerman, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin do not have the same talent for poignant lyrics as the senior musicians on the tour, the group was instrumentally excellent. Willie Nelson and the Family Band took the stage with the energy and informality Nelson is known for. Nelson sang strong vocals on hits like “On the Road Again” and “Beer for my Horses.” The whole group slowed down beautifully for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Georgia on my Mind.”In their heyday Nelson and Dylan were known as much for the songs they wrote as for their performances. As their fame has increased, their songs have become known for the countless covers of their work and for their own performances of it. To some extent nostalgia is the reason why both artists still attract the following they do. Time has taken its toll on both performers, and Nelson is no longer known for his work on guitar as much as his voice and his rapport. Dylan’s performances have suffered more, as the singer’s energy has diminished and vocals on famous hits like “All Along the Watchtower” have become steadily less recognizable.Sunday night was no exception. Dylan’s performance was good, but did not garner the same crowd reaction as Nelson and the Family Band. Dylan’s work on the keyboard was difficult to hear, and while the musicians on stage played well, Dylan’s slurring through his vocals took away from the impact of even his most recognizable numbers.Hits like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “Like a Rolling Stone” were still popular with listeners throughout the stadium, and the performance, as always, was enjoyable for any devoted Dylan fan.Sunday’s performance was, in addition to anything else, a chance to see how time has changed both artists. Nelson has gained a reputation as an American institution in areas beyond his music. Besides owning a brand of whiskey, Nelson, along with John Mellancamp and Neil Young, is one of the founding board members of Farm Aid, and t-shirts for both could be seen throughout the stadium. Dylan has preferred to stick closer to what made him famous. But no matter what has happened or will happen to Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan since their early fame, the crowd at Coveleski showed how much the two will remain American legends.