It's not very often that you wake up in the morning knowing that you'll be seeing three of your favorite musicians and your first thought is, "Man, today's gonna be a letdown" (and, yes, almost all the thoughts in my head start with "Man"). But such was the case the morning after as we got ready to take off for Saratoga to see Raul Malo, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Levon Helm again, and Bob Dylan (and to eat during Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band and the Swell Season). I figured it would be a good show, but since we had lawn seats, it was pretty much a guarantee that it wouldn't be as good as the night at Levon's.
It was my first time back to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center since seeing Tom Petty there seven years ago. And my main memory of the night was being stuck in traffic for an hour and then after getting through that and missing Jackson Browne (thank you, traffic!) wondering, "Where the f*&k am I?" after volunteering to bring my friend's camera back to her car in the auxiliary parking lot in complete darkness. There were times where I thought I wouldn't make it back. I did, which you probably figured out since you're reading something I wrote.
In any case, I was prepared for the traffic jam again, but since this show was starting so early (2:30 p.m.), it wasn't nearly as bad as last time. We even got to park in the main parking lot. Sweet.
Once inside, I tried to scope out a spot near the railing separating the wealthy folks in the covered section from us nickel and dimers on the lawn. We got a decent spot, I watched Raul Malo and Gillian Welch from the rail, battled sunscreen-induced blindness during Steve Earle's set, and then gave up hope on the rail midafternoon, sometime around dinnertime/the Conor Oberst set. Malo's set, bookended by two of my favorites "Every Little Thing About You" and "All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down," was short and solid (if I say "like an Olympic gymnast," am I a perv?), and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings started and ended strong, though, like just about every Gillian Welch listening experience I've ever had (live and CD), there was that middle portion where I slipped into a daze and lost all track of what was going on. Steve Earle was, um, you know, hey, did I tell you that I love Steve Earle? And that I'm hesitant to say anything bad about him? Well, it's true. So, yeah, Steve Earle played. Allison Moorer came out for a few songs. There was a guy on the turntables.
I was finally able to wash the sunscreen out of my eyes in time for dinner. Right before I grabbed some chicken fingers, I spotted my third John Prine shirt of the day, a sure sign that I was among good people (I would be hard-pressed to name a time when I saw one John Prine shirt, never mind three—and all for different albums ["Souvenirs," "Fair and Square," and "Standard Songs for Average People, if your keeping score]). I also exchanged t-shirt complements with a guy from Ohio wearing a Robbie Fulks shirt, who was happy to see I was wearing a Wussy shirt. So, yeah, it was a good crowd. Even the hippies weren't really annoying, an almost unheard of feat.
After the Oberst set (better than I thought) and the Swell Season mini-disaster (there were some audio problems that lead singer Glen Hansard couldn't quite put behind him), it was time for Levon again. It was a much shorter set, and Levon sounded a little more ragged than he did the night before, but it was still a real good time, capped off by "The Weight," with Earle taking the "Crazy Chester" verse and Welch, Rawlings, Hansard, and another guy from the Swell Season (sorry, don't know his name, too tired to try to figure it out) joining in on the last verse and the choruses. Of course, it would've been the height of coolness if Dylan had come out too, but it was not to be. (According to this almost-creepy article, though, he did at least watch a bit of Levon's set, which for some reason makes me happy.)
I've seen Dylan about 30 times and have purposefully held off on making huge efforts to see him since he's switched to all keyboard, all the time, but a setting like Saratoga was perfect. By the time he took the stage, the show was running a little over an hour late, so I thought he might shorten his set a bit. Of course, because he's Bob Dylan, he played "It's Alright, Ma" (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Desolation Row," two of his longest songs (the latter of which was my favorite song of the day). The set wound up being about the usual length of a Dylan show these days and was pretty damn cool. He played a bunch of songs he doesn't play that much ("I Believe in You," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Million Miles") and did a strong job with some of the old reliables ("Highway 61 Revisited" was particularly entertaining). Plus, he only played three songs off "Modern Times," which is just about the right number for me.
At the beginning of the set, a young lass whom I'll place around college age and I had the following conversation after a guy near the rail put a girl on his shoulders:
Her: "Hey, could you put me on your shoulders?"
Me: "Um, yeah, I don't think that's gonna work out."
Her: "Why not?"
Me: "The back isn't so strong."
Her: "I'm not fat!"
Me: "No, no, no. I know you're not. I'm just weak." (I should note that I'd been standing for about half the weekend at this point. Things weren't feeling good.)
Her: "C'mon, I'll give you five dollars."
Me: "Yeah, sorry, no."
And so I missed my chance to hoist (and/or drop) a pretty girl on my shoulders for five dollars. Moments like these you look back on and think "What if?"
She shook my hand and said she understood (very noble), and about 20 minutes later, her taller friend asked me to dance with her and her friends before asking me to sing the last verse of "Desolation Row" to her, which, admittedly, would've been something. Again, what if?
Two of the members of our party (including our noble driver) were off to see Springsteen the next day in Richmond, so we headed straight back to New Jersey after the show ended with "Blowin' in the Wind" (and after purchasing a cool book of photos of the young Dylan a guy was hawking—and selling at a deep discount). Our last truly exciting moment of the weekend occurred at a convenience store on the way back to the Thruway when a guy who seemed to be under the influence of any number of illegal substances stumbled in and repeatedly mumbled, "Anybodyknowhowyougetbacktothehighway?" in the desperate hope that someone would answer him. I would've probably just gone straight to the guy working there, but this gentleman decided it would be best to just stand in the middle of the store until he got an answer. Most of us avoided eye contact, but one member of our party stepped up to try to help. Unfortunately, the directions didn't make it all the way through the fog. So, as we left, the guy finally made his way to the clerk. And this was the last thing I heard as I stepped out the door.
Clerk: "Straight? Straight where?"
I made a mental note of the car's plates on the way out.
We pulled into Jersey City a little bit after 4 a.m. (and not to pick on Steve Earle, but his half-hour tribute to Poco and Loggins and Messina on his Sirius radio show wasn't helping anyone stay alert on the ride back), and the Springsteen folks were out the door at a bit past 9 a.m. on the way to catch a flight to JFK. They are the true champions of the weekend, and I salute them, as well as our fellow traveler who started the weekend off by seeing Neil Diamond. Yes, I was the concert piker among the four of us. I am ashamed.
So, another successful musical road trip in the books. Where to next?