My bucket is almost empty


My bucket is almost empty

‘Don't think twice, it's all right', is what FRED DE VRIES thought when he received an invitation from New York to a show featuring Dylan, Plant, Krauss and Nelson.

EVERY T-shirt tells a story. I looked around and noted quite a few bald men wearing shirts with slogans that said “I’m old, but I see no reason to act my age", “It’s weird being the same age as old people" or “Don’t be jealous just because I look this good at 60." The message was obvious: these guys were still young at heart, age is nothing but a number. Then there were lots of tie-dye shirts and quite a few images of Grateful Dead symbols. Old hippies never die.

But most T-shirts paid tribute to the people who’d be playing here tonight: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Going to a concert these days is a bit like going to a football match: you show your colours. My attempt was more subdued; I was wearing my blue and white Luckenbach shirt, a reference to the tiny Texas place with the country feeling, the place that Waylon Jennings sang about, the place where, according to legend, “everybody’s somebody". No one noticed my shirt, it was too subtle.

Now if you had asked me a few months ago who is still on my musical bucket list, I would have answered: The Kinks, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. But the chances of The Kinks reforming and the Davies brothers burying the hatchet are next to nothing, and those of a Led Zeppelin reunion are nil. Plant has made it clear that he no longer wants to wail about a girl “squeezing my lemon dry". Since he’s reached the respectable age of 75, one can understand that.

So that only left good old Bob Dylan. Admittedly, the man is past his peak, his voice a pale echo of what it used to be, and these days he doesn’t play that trusted Fender Stratocaster but the piano. Still, you do need to have seen him at least once. There’s the Mona Lisa and there’s  Dylan.

So when, a few weeks before my visit to the US, my friend in New York WhatsApped me to see if I would like to go to the Outlaw Music Festival, which featured Plant and Dylan with Nelson as a bonus, my fingers fumbled to type the letters Y.E.S. They would be performing at Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh, Long Island, she said. I had no idea where that was or how to get there. But YES! OK, she would try to get tickets.

Off we went, on Saturday June 29. From Grand Central we took a train to Freeport. The festival organisers had promised there’d be buses waiting to take the fans to the theatre, which can seat 15,000 and was sold out. Familiar with the South African situation and Dutch soccer matches, I expected chaos, pushing and shoving, endless queues. But Americans are not keen on public transport, they'd rather drive. So there was no hassle whatsoever.

We paid $2.90 in exchange for a smooth regional bus ride to Jones Beach, which turned out to be an actual beach, with Saturday crowds packing their bags after a fun day on the shore. Ahead of us lay Jones Beach Theater, an amphitheatre with its bum in the ocean.

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One thing Americans are good at is making sure there are enough people to get you in, welcome you and direct you to your seat (they even cleaned them before we sat down). They are equally good at preventing starvation. In other words, the event was well organised, with dozens of people telling you to “enjoy the concert" and numerous food and booze stalls making sure you wouldn’t see Dylan on an empty stomach. There was even a cocktail bar, where we bought gigantic frozen margaritas poured into huge plastic cups. Needless to say, there were also several merch stalls, where I duly paid $40 for an “Outlaws Tour" souvenir.

All good, except for the disappointing news that Nelson, who turned 91 in April, was sick and couldn’t perform. His son Lukas would cover for him. A pity, but not a train smash — I am a late Nelson convert. It was only last year, when I visited his birth state of Texas and read his autobiography, that I fully grasped his scope and importance.

My friend and I had been speculating about the order in which the Big Three would play. My take was that Dylan was the biggest name and would be the main act, while Plant and Krauss were the Benjamins (Krauss is a 52-year old spring chicken) and would be the first to entertain us. The last guess was spot on, because at about 7.30pm a group of musicians walked on stage and soon we started grooving to the softly swirling rockabilly of Rich Woman, which appeared on the first Plant and Krauss album, their interpretation of an old New Orleans R&B tune. The band was dressed in black and Krauss stood out in a long, bright pink dress. Plant, who wore an embroidered black country shirt, may no longer be the barechested rock god of yore but he still looks amazingly good, lean, with long grey curls.

I had no expectations of Plant and Krauss. I love the two albums they've made (Raising Sand from 2007 and Raise the Roof from 2021) but the introverted folk, weepy country and subtly shuffling rockabilly on those records seemed more suited to a small club than a big auditorium. But was I wrong. Plant and Krauss provided over an hour of unbridled joy.

The two singers, backed by a tight four-man band, started with a couple of tunes from Raising Sand. But then, much to my surprise and delight, I heard that that old familiar battle cry: “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled.” I looked at my friend, and she at me. Yes, it was that old Led Zeppelin cracker, the second track on their fourth album, Rock and Roll. They had given it a folky arrangement, focusing on the violin instead of Jimmy Page’s massive guitar sound. It worked wonderfully well, sending shivers down my spine. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears: here I was, somewhere on the American east coast, watching a man who was one of my idols when I was a teenager finding novel ways to interpret that gloriously powerful anthem he co-wrote.

And he and Krauss and the four musicians did it with gusto and passion, dragging it across more than five decades and giving it a new lease of life. And his voice! Although he can no longer reach those screeching highs, he can still do the tricks, the moans, the screams, the whispers.

More was to follow. They played highlights from Raising Sand, including the sad farewell song Please Read The Letter. Then there were more Zeppelin treats. Fairport Convention’s traditional Matty Groves segued into Gallows Pole from Led Zeppelin III, which was followed by a seven-minute version The Battle of Evermore, with Krauss doing the parts that the late Sandy Denny sang on Led Zeppelin IV. Again, tears welled up. Next came a long interpretation of the complex When The Levee Breaks, also from Led Zeppelin IV, with a major role for the violins, one of them played by the versatile Krauss. It was nothing short of magnificent. They ended, appropriately, with a cover of the Everly Brothers’ Gone, Gone, Gone.

So who would be next? Well, it wasn’t the Nelson family, as I had predicted. It was Dylan, dressed in a white hoodie, settling his scrawny bum on a stool behind a black piano, surrounded by two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. First song, a no-nonsense take on Highway 61 Revisited. Excellent start. And I must say, although I’m not a Dylan nut like some of my friends, hearing that voice, that crackle, the signature sneer, singing about Abe and God and killing a son, and that blues highway that stretches from Louisiana to Minnesota, that was a very special moment, like finally seeing a Caravaggio or a Rembrandt. Here was the man who gave pop music its lyrical and intellectual impetus, who pulled it away from ‘yeah yeah’ songs, the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Dylan gave us 15 songs, some well-known, others pretty obscure. Call Me Mr. Blue, anyone? I looked it up. The tune appeared on The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, dedicated to The Basement Tapes. For me, the highlights were Love Sick and Ballad of a Thin Man, first released in 1965, which came complete with Dylan on harmonica. The words made me think of Joe Biden and his disastrous debate with Donald Trump a few days earlier.

This is not the place to go on about those two old men (would’ve been fun to see them in a tie-dye and a Grateful Dead shirt though). But when I saw Biden’s response to his pitiful performance, his stubborn refusal to bow out, his references to “the elite" and waiting for God to tell him when his time has come (didn’t Zuma once say something similar about the ANC and Jesus?) it gave Dylan’s words extra weight: “Something’s happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones."

Dylan ended his set with soulful renditions of Simple Twist of Fate and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, and then he too was gone, gone, gone — off the bucket list.

Do you still want to hear about Lukas Nelson? Well, let me tell you that most of the Led Zeppelin T-shirts had left by then. But that was their loss, because Lukas turned out to be a great entertainer, just like his dad, and a better singer. He’s also pretty crafty on guitar. So we were in for a third joyride, which included classic Willie tunes such as Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away and Bloody Mary Morning. Lukas also brought Edie Brickell onto the stage for duets of On the Road Again and Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away.

But the best moment came with the final tune, his almost a capella interpretation of Willie’s Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, a song about love, loss and letting go. We listened. A few excited screams and whistles, but we concentrated on the sound of Lukas’s voice and his guitar. “If you had not a-fallen, then I would not have found you /Angel flying too close to the ground/ And I patched up your broken wing/ And hung around a while/ Trying to keep your spirits up/ And your fever down/ I knew someday that you would fly away/ For love's the greatest healer to be found/ So leave me if you need to, I will still remember/ Angel flying too close to the ground."

And then it was over, done and dusted, leaving my bucket virtually empty.

Plant & Krauss: The Battle of Evermore

Bob Dylan: Ballad of a Thin Man

Lukas Nelson: Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground  

♦ VWB ♦

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