Lilting country tunes and raucous rock

Published May 30, 2005

CLEARWATER - Bay-area music lovers celebrated the holiday weekend in style as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson took over centerfield Sunday at Bright House Networks Field.

The venue's first-ever concert proved a gem, with great music coming to you on a clear sound system and even comfortable grass seating. And what a deal: two icons for $50, and kids under 12 got in free.

First, a few gripes.

It's not every day Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson come to town. And they have been known to write and record together. So, would it have been too much to ask for just one duet?

Maybe Dylan could have joined Willie for Pancho and Lefty? Just a thought.

And another thing. Nelson hawked his new album during the show, and he's got a long-awaited reggae album due out in August. It would have been nice to hear even one tune from those releases.

Overall, though, the concert thrilled.

Nelson opened the card with a terrific 75-minute, 21-song set heavy on the highlights but not without a few surprises.

Buried within the greatest hits, which he wears so comfortably with each tour, were some offerings new to Nelson's Florida regulars. One gem was a version of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood, with Nelson's son Lukas at the mike and on lead electric guitar.

The crowd went wild for the rendition, which found Nelson and his son trading nimble solos.

Nelson also introduced a snarky new romp called Superman, with sarcastic lyrics that kept the audience laughing. And what would a Nelson show be without the string of hits, opening with the trademark Whiskey River and running through gospel-tinged Will the Circle Be Unbroken and I'll Fly Away ?

His voice belied his age (72), though he's lost some of the high notes. And his trademark guitar plucking still thrills.

Unlike Nelson, who smiled and waved to the crowd while performing his lilting country tunes, 64-year-old Dylan came out rocking with barely an acknowledgement to the audience of about 6,000.

At first, Dylan was what some critics call inscrutable. Don't run for your dictionary. It means unintelligible.

But before long - maybe he drank something - his growl grew more clear. And through extended jams with a superb band, the one-time folkie treated fans to some raucous electric versions of some longtime hits, as well as some jaunty newer ones, such as Summer Days, from his latest CD Love and Theft.

Occasionally, he stepped out from behind his keyboard to play harmonica, and the chord changes and infinite variations on old themes came fast and furious. More than one hardcore Dylan fan admitted to barely recognizing Highway 61 Revisited or Positively Fourth Street.

After an 85-minute, 12-song set, Dylan returned to thunderous applause to perform a two-song encore. Folks who traveled to South Florida for his three other shows got something different - a mellow The Times They Are A-Changin - and the usual concert ender, acid rocker All Along the Watchtower.

The Australian country band Greencards also played a well-received four-song bluegrass set earlier in the day.