Whether it's by design or just a happy accident, the Les Schwab Amphitheater (LSA) concert series has managed to attract some of America's foremost songwriters and storytellers over the past few years, a line-up that includes Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard on the country side and Beck and Bob Dylan on the pop and folk side with plenty of good natured (classic) rocking in between - think Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steve Miller.
This weekend Dylan, who long ago solidified his position as the dean of American songwriters, returns to LSA for a Friday night double billing with another American singer songwriter icon, the perennially underrated John Mellencamp. Each of the artists will play a full set, with Mellencamp starting off the evening and Dylan closing the show. The 69-year-old songwriter, who wears his age about as well as Keith Richards, will play a set that reads a lot like his greatest hits album with a few newer numbers thrown in for the sake of artistic integrity. Those who have seen Dylan perform know what to expect. By and large, you'll get a dose of classics such as "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Rainy Day Women" delivered with a few improvisations and reinterpretations mixed in. While Dylan's voice, which was never more than a thin rattle at its best, has long since deteriorated into an approximation of audible utterances, it doesn't really matter since you already know the verses and choruses by heart. If Dylan's own performance leaves a little to be desired on most nights, the same cannot be said of his always excellent band that keeps the show moving along and the notes crisp. Early reviews of the co-headline tour indicate that Dylan is putting forth some strong performances in the twilight of his performing career.
While Dylan carries that Bucket List aura that comes with a distinction of having recorded some of history's most well-known songs, it's Mellencamp who comes into the show with the bigger contemporary buzz. Now in his fourth decade of recording, Mellencamp has amassed a body of work that is box-set worthy by almost any measure. (He has more than 20 Billboard Top 40 hits.) A roots rocker long before the term existed, Mellencamp is the unparalleled chronicler of life in the rural heartland. His latest effort, though, takes an entirely different approach to his brand of Americana.
Going with a less-is-more approach, Mellencamp teamed up with renowned producer T Bone Burnett on his latest release No Better Than This, which was released on the roots-oriented Rounder Recorders (other Rounder artists include Son Volt, JJ Cale and Bruce Cockburn). The album marks the second Burnett-Mellencamp collaboration and like the earlier release, Life Death Love and Freedom, has been largely embraced by critics. (Rolling Stone gave the album 3.5 stars).
The album eschews all the trappings of a major studio recording with a serious back-to-basics ethos. For starters, the entire album was recorded in mono, using a single microphone and live takes for every track. It's an approach that while somewhat contrived, produces a sound that Mellencamp refers to as more "organic" than some of the studio sleight of hand that transforms awkward teens like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber into pop-singing sensations.
Like many great albums of earlier eras, the entire record was written and recorded on the road. Mellencamp penned the entire album in less than two weeks this past spring, waking in the mornings to write when he could be "intensely focused."
Rather than bring the tracks into a studio where they could be polished and refined with a production team and his band, Mellencamp put down the songs while he was on the road with Dylan and the aforementioned Willie Nelson. The majority of the album was recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis where Sam Phillips helped Elvis and Carl Perkins cut their earliest hits. Additional tracks were added in Savannah, Ga., where Mellencamp took the band to one of the oldest black Baptist churches in the South. Mellencamp rounded out the recording sessions in San Antonio, Tex., where he cut a track in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel, the same room where the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson once recorded.
Staying true to his back-to-basics philosophy for the album, Mellencamp put down all the tracks on a 55-year-old Ampex mobile reel-to-reel recorder and then handed the tapes to Burnett for mastering. While a solid bookend to Mellencamp's lengthy catalog, the album as a whole isn't something that fans will be clamoring to hear from start to finish in concert. Thankfully, that's something that Mellencamp realizes and will play his set largely grounded in his hard driving rock hits like "Hurt So Good" and early Americana like "Jack and Diane" and "Pink Houses" punctuated with more pensive moments like "Save Some Time To Dream" from the new album.
If you're coming for Dylan and view Mellencamp as an '80s pop throwaway or a classic rock hanger-on, you might be in for a pleasant surprise on Friday night.
Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp
Les Schwab Amphitheater
Friday, Aug. 27
All Ages. Reserve advance, $79.50;
general admission, $48.50
Ticket Mill in the Old Mill, Ticketmaster