Review: AmericanaramA in Toronto

10:05 AM, Jul 17, 2013

My Morning Jacket's Jim James has an amazing, soaring voice, whose seriousness is tempered by his coy sense of humor: He spins around onstage wrapped in the purple cloak of a pseudo-mystical marching band secret sect. (Theo Wargo//Getty Images)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: AmericanaramA Festival of Music Tour, featuring Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham.
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, Route 77, Darien, Genesee County.
Tickets: $30 for the lawn; $49.50, $59.50 and $79.50 for the pavilion, available at ticketmaster.com and (800) 745-3000.

TORONTO — A couple of us thought we heard this near the end of My Morning Jacket’s set at Monday’s AmericanaramA Music Festival at Toronto’s Canadian Molson Amphitheatre. Lead singer Jim James, we’re pretty sure, seemed to be improvising these lines:

Dylan is the innovator

Dylan is the imitator

If he did, then yeah, that pretty much defines the undefineable term I throw around a lot, Americana music.

The festival, with Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham, hits Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on Thursday. Eager to see this event, I made the three-hour drive — plus an hour wait at the border — for you. And me. In a summer of unimaginative tours, I really wanted to see this one, which featured the Richard Thompson Electric Trio instead of Bingham. And I didn’t want to see it in a converted cow pasture.

I thought Wilco had pretty much sewn up the evening’s Most Valuable Player award when Jeff Tweedy said he was turning the last part of his band’s set into a CanadianaramA by calling up the Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist to join his band. He brought out Thompson as well for a version of Canadian legend Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” taking a little breather to play Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars” with Thompson’s trio, then closing the set with My Morning Jacket joining the crowd onstage for a cover of Canadian native Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.”

But then, deep into his own set, which had already been quite interesting in its own right, Dylan did something very unusual. He spoke. In all of the Dylan shows I’ve seen, and that’s quite a few, he’s maybe introduced his band once, and muttered “Thank you” two or three times. But now we got complete sentence:

You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before,” be announced in that barking-crow cackle of his.

Dylan and his always-fine band took the stage in compete darkness, except for two of those propane torches that you see on patio bar on a crisp evening. As the temperature was still in the 80s, and humid, this appeared excessive. But I’ve seen this in my own mother; Dylan is 72, and a cardigan doesn’t look quite rock and roll. They played most of the set in the murky lighting that he prefers, opening with “Things Have Changed.”

Dylan was without his guitar. He never touched it the entire evening. Perhaps the carpal tunnel problems that troubled him a few years ago, forcing him to stop playing the instrument for a while, have returned. But he did play harmonica often, which always delights the older crowd hankering for the days of “Blind Willie McTell.” Which they got. Dylan played keyboards as well. But just as often, he simply stood at the front of the stage and sang, shuffling and juking and waving a hand, like a scarecrow come to life. It’s as animated as I’ve ever seen him. It was like he had been challenged, dislodged from his usual elder statesman air, by the lively music that had come before.

The bands of AmericanaramA are a range of what the music is. I like Bingham, who represents the young musicians of this roots-based music, even though he himself sounds like he’s 72. But Thompson was special, and carries with him a whole other aspect of Americana. The English folk influence. Like his old band, Fairport Convention, and the Irish immigrants’ string-driven songs that influenced porch-picking hillbillies.

My Morning Jacket wrapped the American singer-songwriter tradition in a spiraling, eight-cylinder rock machine, propelled by James’ amazing, soaring voice, the seriousness tempered by a coy sense of humor: He spins around the stage wrapped in the purple cloak of a pseudo-mystical marching band secret sect, waving a golden bear.

Likewise, Wilco opened its set Monday with acoustic sensibilities that served Tweedy’s songwriting, but was soon using every high-voltage trick at a modern rock band’s disposal on fine modern classics such as “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Especially guitarist Nels Cline, who waged an admirable guitar battle with Thompson on Fairport Convention’s “Sloth.”

It all falls together. Dylan is the innovator, but we also know he is the imitator, borrowing liberally from Japanese poetry and the diaries of Confederate soldiers. Dylan is a synthesizer of sounds. He disguises his own songs, like “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” behind his odd chipmunk cadence. “Duquesne Whistle” and “Early Roman Kings” from the newest album, Tempest, is typical 21st century Dylan: wheezing western mortician swing.

And then he pulled the promised what we’d never seen before. Dylan joined onstage, his mystical legacy interrupted by other musicians, Tweedy and James. They played guitars and joined Dylan on Joan Baez’s “O What a Beautiful City” and a laconic, swinging version of an almost-unrecognizable encore, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Amazing. Hard to believe the Toronto Star reviewer hated it.

After the show, we stopped at the King Edward Hotel for a post-Dylan cocktail. The hotel is old, with an immense lobby. No architect today would be allowed to waste that much space on a lobby. The bar is dark wood and also oozes an excessive plushness that’s rarely found today. On the list of drinks, I notice that the dirty martini, made with vodka and an artichoke heart joining two olives on the toothpick, was called a John and Yoko.

Does this hotel have a John and Yoko history?” I asked.

Our bartender, Stephano, was quite knowledgeable on the Beatles. This, it turns out, was the site of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous 1969 “Bed-ins For Peace,” when they simply hung out naked in their room and invited reporters to interview them while lying in bed.

I can tell you the room number,” Stephano said, “869.”

Of course,” I said. “I’ll have one.”