TAMPA — I love it when Mother Nature writes my leads for me. Right in the middle of My Morning Jacket's swaying-wheatfield of a ballad Wonderful, a lightning-thunder combo platter cooking over MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre put a jolt into the tender Southern strum. The boom mixed with beauty summed up Thursday's Americanarama Festival of Music perfectly: roots-rock born of national soil juiced with a lil' something extra.
The five-hour-plus fest was the puckish brainchild of 72-year-old headliner Bob Dylan, who filled out the mighty bill with Chicago's Wilco, Louisville's My Morning Jacket (MMJ if you're cool) and outer space's Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, whose short acoustic set opened the sprawling gig.
Barefoot and bearded, the 65-year-old Weir plucked out a few well-worn faves including Me and My Uncle and The Music Never Stopped. His equally grayish followers, about the only ones there at the 5:30 p.m. start, dutifully did the head-down Deadhead shuffle in their tie-dyed-and-true finery.
The crowd of 8,100 would thicken considerably by the time MMJ, a remarkably hirsute Kentucky quintet that hasn't played Tampa Bay in some 10 years, took the stage. MMJ is led by Jim James, a fiendish musician whose heaven-kissed voice can morph from a dusty hopalong croon to something approaching a muezzin's call. As a result, MMJ is a jam band and a rock band and a prog band — often within the confines of the same cut.
"It's a beautiful morning, and we are happy to be here this morning," James said straight-faced, a subtle swipe at their 6:15 p.m. start. But these guys didn't play angry; they played possessed, switching with force from the reinforced '60s jangle of Lowdown to the high-plains go-go of First Light.
In one of the night's sweeter moments, Weir joined MMJ for an elongated and gorgeous cover of the Beatles' Dear Prudence. Hippie nirvana, I tell you.
Continuing with the theme of y'alt rock, Jeff Tweedy and his shape-shifters in Wilco were next. Tweedy (looking Boblike in a straw boater) is a master of the song that can't be contained, Muzzle of Bees and Sunken Treasure starting gentle before spiraling into blasts of noise. Weir would join Wilco, too, on the Rolling Stones' Dead Flowers and the Dead's Friend of the Devil.
MMJ and Wilco were often so expansive and trippy in their approach, their prolonged freakouts sent people to restrooms and beer lines. But everyone was seated for the finale. With a stage bookended by flaming lamps and not much else for lighting, it could have been Larry Dylan who first sauntered out there. But then he started singing. Electrocuted-bullfrog croak, ragged phrasing before and after the beat. Yep, that's Bob alright.
Talk about reinvention: Opening song Things Have Changed, normally a midtempo roll, was given a Wild West gallop, making it near-unrecognizable for the first minute. But the followup, the haunted Love Sick, remained a wicked dirge, with Dylan, no need for a guitar, exhaling a sinister harmonica solo. Except for a few turns at a black piano, the legend was happy as a moody, slightly creepy frontman, striking all manner of geriatric Elvis poses.
A Dylan show isn't pretty, but it's not without beauty. The old-timey ballroom ballad Soon After Midnight was delivered like a lover's whisper. And his reading of Tangled Up in Blue, the highlight of the fest, was devastating. Bob's whole career has been about reinvention, the thread that binds these Americanarama acts. Though some things have indeed changed, Bob Dylan is wise enough to know that some things should stay blissfully the same.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.