Dylan & Co., from the roots up
By Aaron Leitko
Thursday, July 25, 2013
What is Americana, anyway?
The genre tag is applied to rock bands that merge American roots music ---- country, blues, R&B ---- with modern, radio--friendly flourishes. The stylistic waters can get muddy, though. Songs can evoke the music of Woody Guthrie and also U2’s “The Joshua Tree.” Bands might augment wood--grain riffing with flourishes on loan from German experimental music of the late ’70s. Americana is not necessarily traditional, and the nostalgia does not stop at regional or national borders.
In the case of the Americanarama Tour, the definition could boil down to simply meaning that Bob Dylan likes your band ---- or likes that your band is evidence of his music’s enduring influence ---- and has decided you should accompany him on the road.
On Tuesday night, Americanarama arrived at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. The bill has shifted slightly from city to city, but the shows are anchored around three acts: My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Dylan, each of which is capable of packing a barn--style venue on its own.
They have been brought together seemingly at Dylan’s behest, with the opening acts ceding the spotlight for the chance to tour with an idol. But while other dates on the tour have seen some impromptu duets and familial banter, Tuesday’s show was slim on inter--band camaraderie.
Even if they weren’t palling around in public, Wilco and My Morning Jacket benefited from being in close proximity to each other. When you’re sandwiched onto a triple--headlining bill with your idol, there’s no time to play the snoozy cuts from your sixth record.
Formed in Kentucky during the late ’90s, My Morning Jacket plays a spacious strain of Southern rock. Often, the band sounds like a boombox blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd from the bottom of an empty swimming pool.
Singer/guitarist Jim James is a thoroughly theatrical frontman, frequently ditching his guitar to don a cape and stalk the stage with a sampler swinging around his neck. On the band’s closing song, “Victory Dance,” he picked up a saxophone for a final bombastic blowout. However you feel about MMJ, it is not an easy act to follow.
Wilco had that duty Tuesday. The band, led by Jeff Tweedy, began in the mid--’90s as a country--rock group with punk underpinnings but in the past decade has swung toward experimental pop. Its set alternated between its most and least thinky tunes ---- pivoting between lighter--wavers from the early era, such as “I Got You (At the End of the Century),” and newer, noisier fare, such as “Bull Black Nova,” that could rival My Morning Jacket in terms of stage volume.
There’s a clear kinship between Wilco and My Morning Jacket. Both bands began as roots rockers but became more successful as they expanded their sonic scope. Both also have taken heavy inspiration from Dylan, from both his songwriting and his ability to shift between identities and styles.
Dylan, on the other hand, seemed a world removed from his tour--mates.
The singer, now 72, performed a set of music mostly drawn from his last decade’s worth of studio albums, in which he largely favors traditional folk and blues sounds. The years have rendered his voice craggy and muppet--like, and it was sometimes hard to parse his famous lyrics. There were times when the audience cheered mid--song, having only recognized a rejiggered classic such as “A Hard Rain’s a--Gonna Fall” from the chorus.
Dylan seemed energized, though. He moved between piano and harmonica, giving cues to the band and smiling slightly between verses. Stage banter is not Dylan’s thing, and he never paused between songs to gab about his age or wobbly gait or to acknowledge the other bands on the bill. That silence works to his benefit, though. The total vacuum of personal information created the perception that he was somehow slightly more than human ---- an ageless gargoyle pacing between two flickering torches that had been set up on either side of the stage. Those torches stayed where they were, symbolically and otherwise.
The National pours out solidly gray rock
By Aaron Leitko
Saturday, June 8, 2013
There is nothing about the National that would offend a classic rock fan’s sensibilities, but the band still has a tough time packing out the shed circuit. Not that bringing a few thousand fans to the suburbs on a rainy weeknight should be equated with failure.
On Thursday, the Brooklyn--via--Cincinnati quintet performed a two--hour set that drew heavily from its sixth and most recent album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” to a respectable, if nowhere--near--sold--out crowd at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Maybe it was just the weather. The band filled the stands, but attendance was lean in the lawn seats, where an evening of rain had turned the venue’s pastoral cheap seats into one soggy, swampy mud pie.
The National's music is snoozy but solid. There's nothing particularly outstanding about the band -- guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner can't (or maybe just won't) wail. The songs are monochromatic, employing simple chord progressions and gallons of reverb. Singer Matt Berninger's voice is raspy and thin, and it functions best when he speak--sings his lyrics in a hushed baritone. Between verses, he paced the stage, cupping his chin, as if he were attempting to psych himself up for another run at the mike. Their music sometimes seems to exist in the negative space between other popular bands: a less twangy Wilco, a less treacly Coldplay, a more chilled--out Arcade Fire.
Basically, the National delivers a normalized rock experience. The band is good at evoking tenderness without coming off as cloying, and Berninger's best lyrics subtly parody the pale gray backing tracks. "I was teething on roses, I was in 'Guns and Noses,' " he sings on "Humiliation." They are consistent, dependable and -- if you're a slightly mopey, sophisticated young professional -- relatable.
And if you are a Beltway resident under 30 and want to watch your favorite band perform an outdoor concert, Merriweather Post Pavilion is likely your only hope. While the D.C. area’s other barn--style venues pack their summer schedules with long--proven boomer--friendly fare ---- Robert Plant, Steve Miller Band, Jimmy Buffett ---- the Frank Gehry--designed venue has set its sights on the next generation, hoping that younger, cooler bands will persuade millennials to pile into their cars (or Zipcars) and make the trek to Columbia. This summer’s schedule includes indie--poppers Belle & Sebastian, a double bill of blog faves the xx and Grizzly Bear and the Diplo--curated Mad Decent Summer Block Party.
While these bands often appear near the top of festival bills, they can’t always reliably pack out an outdoor arena in the exurbs. The National, which headlined the venue in 2011 and also appeared at the Virgin Mobile Free Fest in 2009, has proven to be a pretty safe bet.
They are not kids ---- the band has been together since the early ’00s, and its members are all middle--aged ---- but have only recently crested in popularity, and they seem to have ironed out their big room moves. Thursday’s set managed to sustain a sense of intimacy throughout two hours’ worth of music without appealing to dino--rock--era padding techniques, like the mid--show acoustic mini--set.
Instead, it was moved to the final encore as the band played a stripped--down version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” as the audience began heading out to the parking lot.
Spotted with trees and saddled by Symphony Woods on its northern end, Merriweather Post Pavilion spans 50 acres of parkland. Its outdoor amphitheater offers 5,200 pavilion seats, which are sheltered from weather, and about 10,000 lawn seats. The facility showcases performances throughout the summer, attracting fans from Towson, Annapolis, Catonsville, Washington and as far as Harrisburg, Pa.
Concerts are enhanced by three life-size video screens and elaborate colored lighting. Patrons can loll on the lawn's expanded picnic area before the show and order from a multi-ethnic menu that includes veggie wraps, burritos, noodle bars and gyros. They can stroll along lightedbrick paths through the pavilion's historical markers and 150-year-old beech tree groves, and loiter on park benches overlooking a new fountain in Symphony Woods Pond. Improvements made in the summer of 1998 added extra lighting, box office windows, parking for the disabled, uniform signs and banners, a tan, green and white color scheme.
-- Vandana Sinha