“Good morning, Nashville,” My Morning Jacket singer Jim James said, addressing the crowd midway through the pride-of-Louisville band’s hour-and-15-minute set. “We are blessed to be among this beautiful community of like-minded souls on this blessed Sunday morning," (or something like that) he continued, introducing the aptly titled “Sweet Jane” homage “Slow Slow Song” — one of a handful of laid-back summery selections from 2011's electro-tinged Southern rock release Circuital, which dominated its set list.
It wasn’t morning. In fact, it was just before sundown. We were keenly aware of the time, as we’d planned our evening around getting to The Lawn at Riverfront Park in time to catch timeworn former Grateful Dead frontman Bob Weir’s solo acoustic set. We missed it, thanks to a blocks-spanning line that snaked from the venue all the way to Third and Lower Broad, and was peppered with hold-out Deadheads of all ages (and we mean all ages) wandering — no pun intended — dead-eyed with raised index fingers, hoping for that miracle donor to toss ‘em a ticket. We made it inside just as the Jacket was opening with an uber-chill “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” with James’ high, crystal-clear croon soaring over the Nashville skyline.
And speaking of lines, you could have sold out the Ryman a couple times over by the anaconda-and-then-some size of the scattered beer lines alone, a surefire sign that not only did this show do rather well attendance-wise, but that organizers should have planned for thirstier revelers.
Luckily the beer terminal we chose had an excellent sight line to the stage, as we spent most of MMJ’s set standing in it, with hopes of eventually getting a buzz on. Though sober is no way to soak up a kick-ass pair of Dead covers, that’s exactly the shape we were in when MMJ brought Weir back to the stage to lead them through uncannily accurate renditions of “Brown-Eyed Woman” and a thoroughly rockin’ “I Know You Rider” that sounded like the Dead on a good night, with Weir, James and MMJ lead slinger Carl Broemel trading licks on a scorching three-guitar jam. Sealing the deal, James has a definite Jerry-like streak of vulnerability to his timbre, something we’d never realized until hearing him harmonize with Weir.
Weir also joined Wilco for two songs during their AmericanaramA set, the first of which — a fittingly loose, shaky “Bird Song” — creeped to a start with a very, ahem, jerry-built beginning and, like Weir’s MMJ jam sesh, sounded authentically Dead, albeit a bit more circa ’95 vintage than ’77. What followed, however — a heady, hard-charging cover of The Beatles’ psych-rock template “Tomorrow Never Knows” — kicked ass in a way Wilco hasn’t kicked ass in a good decade or so. Between his stand-ins with MMJ and Jeff Tweedy & Co., to our pleasant surprise, Bob Weir was the hero of the show, much to the delight of crowd-dominating Deadheads and hippie Dylan fans.
The rest of Wilco's set stuck pretty closely to the template they've been using for the past couple years, winding from the laid-back, appropriately dusty and wistful folk of Mermaid Avenue to lengthy The Whole Love opener "Art of Almost" and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot faves like "Jesus Etc." "If you think this is boring, just wait until Dylan," we overheard one apparent MMJ fan say to his pal as guitarist Nels Cline blew through another solo. Weir's appearance was indeed the highlight of the set, which — compared to My Morning Jacket's volume — was very literally quiet and subdued, lulling more than one ancient hippie to sleep on blankets that were sprinkled throughout the crowd as night fell.
We had no trouble working our way up close enough to the stage to be able to tell that the guys in Dylan's band were sporting bolo ties; but even up there, we could only make out about every third line he sang. Among guitar-toting singer-songwriters, Dylan’s is the most revered and referenced catalog on earth. And yet he reserves the right to mess around with it and, most especially, to mess around with anybody expecting to hear the oldies done the old way. Working a vaguely Colonel Sanders-esque look, Dylan played the part of the fantastically elusive entertainer, wizened, wolfish, witty and wily, chewing up his lyrics and melodies and spitting out anything-but-straight, vaudevillian, sing-scatting vamps.
Dylan's band of pros bee-lined through country-rock shuffles, country-soul balladry, jazzy jump blues, sinewy boogies and throwback pop, getting a handful of couples swing dancing down front. But to make sure we were hearing what we thought we were hearing — re-imagined as it was — took a bit of live lyric Googling on the ol’ smartphone. Just under half the set came from Blood on the Tracks and earlier albums, and the rest was at least as recent as 1997’s Time Out of Mind, with several songs from last year’s darkly funny Tempest.
When Dylan came back for his one-song encore, he proved us just as wrong as anybody else who’s ever tried to predict his next move. He brought out all four McCrary Sisters — Regina McCrary sang with him circa Slow Train Comin’ — for an un-folky, loose-limbed romp through “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Damn right he’s the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.