“So this is what has become of rock ‘;n’ roll? A smashed guitar behind a glass case displayed on some rich guy’s wall?”; Penélope Cruz asks of a busted Pete Townshend axe in Vanilla Sky.
Last week, Cruz’s question popped up a few times for me. Wednesday night, as Raleigh expatriate and former Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams returned, I wondered if this was it: The amalgamated specter of Gram Parsons, Jerry Garcia and half-a-dozen other vinyl-era heroes in a venue built for a symphony, playing on a stage from which Mitch Hedberg once remarked, “I’m either really late or really early for choir practice.” Everyone sat, and–for the first four songs–Adams’ onstage personality matched that test-subject atmosphere: He barely acknowledged the audience, opting to simply play, check the band, and collide right into the next song. It was as if Dylan had taught him a trick–that is, how to turn your acknowledged charisma and wit off onstage and treat every audience with the same stone face. Maybe it was the nerves turning him inward; after all, he was back to what, at times, has been a hostile homestead. But by the time Adams hit the first Cold Roses single, “Let It Ride,” he had started to lose the nerves, and things got magical. His jokes came in six-minute song breaks; his wit came down on Robbie Fulks, Wilco, Billy Corgan, himself and an impatient balcony sitter who wanted Adams to “play a song” (“Mind your own business,” quipped Adams). He was doing just fine, and–given the widely mentioned reunions later in that three-hour set at Meymadi Hall and the too-short night back at Slim’s–he seemed more than welcome (and welcomed) to be back home.
I was confronted with the same question Saturday night in Greensboro, standing in First Horizon Park, America’s newest stadium and home of the unfortunately named Greensboro Grasshoppers. Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson were set to turn the outfield into a concert hall for one night only. Not long after the fantastic neo-grass, intercontinental Greencards opened and an announcer flashed copies of five new 2005 Willie albums and an autobiography, Nelson arrived, delivering a familiar medley of melodies in a comforting, comfortable, predictable-as-hell fashion that found a middle-aged woman offering panties and flashing breasts during the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away.” Was this it? Luckily, Dylan shortly arrived and transcended, standing behind a stage-left keyboard all night, tapping out fiery solos and shaking his wiry legs, not imitating anyone (himself included). “Girl from the North Country” was entirely unrecognizable in all the right ways, and rendering “Just Like a Woman” as a crust-free, country-soul beauty showed Dylan is still thinking. Where Nelson had been a docile host waving and pointing warmly at the crowd and alternately turning the stage’s handle over to members of his family band, Dylan commanded it with about 10 words and a few chuckles. Rock–no glass case needed.