The Petty Archives

Song selection, sound system disappoint Dylan fans at Akron
By Julie Fanslow
Youngstown Vindicator - Thursday, July 3, 1986

AKRON -- As the Grateful Dead have testified, "What a long, strange trip it's been." And, chances are, most of the 40,000 or so who attended Wednesday's concert featuring the Dead, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are still shaking their heads and wondering what just was said, played and sung last night.

In the '60s and '70s, stadium rock concerts were enormously popular. A music fan need only look to Wednesday's triple bill at the Rubber Bowl, probably this summer's most fiercely hyped and eagerly awaited show, to understand why concerts on this scale have fallen from favor.

The first and worst problem is an inadequate sound system, its ineffectiveness magnified by the open-air setting and Rubber Bowl's flabby acoustics. It's always been hard enough to understand Dylan; it was well nigh impossible Wednesday. Lyrics were muddled and in-between song patter couldn't be heard at all. Petty fared even worse -- the only time his voice carried clearly halfway across the stadium was during "The Waiting," the first half of which he did solo, just he and his electric guitar.

Dylan, Petty and the Heartbreakers played two hours and 45 minutes, mostly as a team, although Petty and his band did two mini-sets of four songs each and Dylan took the stage along for a few songs, a familiar vagabond figure in a crazy-quilt jacket, acoustic guitar in hand and harmonica at the ready.

At 45, Dylan seems to be enjoying himself on his first tour in five years, and the Heartbreakers offer outstanding support, performing Dylan's old and new songs as if they've been playing them all along.

But the song selection itself was another disappointment. Admittedly, it must be hard for Dylan to choose a few chosen songs from a 25-year career. And he covered that career well chronologically Wednesdau, with songs from his early folk hero days ("It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Ballad of a Thin Man"), from his puzzling Born Again Christian era (the underrated "In the Garden") and from his most recent work ("When the Night Comes Falling From The Sky" and "The Real You at Last.")

Most concertgoers, however, probably wanted to hear more classic Dylan than what was offered. "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" drew loud applause with its famous "Everybody must get stone" refrain, and "Blowing in the Wind," one of three encore numbers, was a treat with its country clip and easy manner. But oh, Bob, how could you end a show without "Memphis Blues Again"? Without "Subterranean Homesick Blues," or "Positively Fourth Street" or "Mr. Tambourine Man"?

The Grateful Dead's segment of the show was another puzzler. It took nearly 90 minutes for the Dead to take the stage after Dylan and Petty finished. But after just two songs, the band had to stop and make adjustments, and there were similarly long pauses before nearly every number.

The highlight of the Dead's set was Dylan's reappearance. Together, they jammed on Willie Dixon's "Litle Red Rooster," with guitarist Bob Weir shouting the bluesy vocal, and on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Two songs later, the Dead disappeared withouta word to the crowd, and another half-hour hiatus had the crowd wondering what had happened. The Dead are renowned for playing four- and five-hour shows. It's anyone's guess why northeast Ohio fans got the short end of the stick Wednesday.

The Rubber Bowl concert -- one of only four nationwide starring all three acts -- had its redeeming factors. The best was the crowd. It was a great day for people-watching. The parking lots were jammed with cars bearing license plates from Maryland, New Jersey, even Arizona -- sure signs of Dead Heads, those rabid Grateful Dead fans who follow the band cross-country.

Most of these free spirits are the closest you'll come in 1986 to "flower children" of almost 20 years ago, sporting tie-dyed clothing and gently drawing multicolored pictures on each other with felt-tipped markers. The Dead encourage free enterprize, too, and bootleg and authorized T-shirt sellers were everywhere; a top-selling shirt was right in the holiday spirit with its "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Dead" message.

The weather also cooperated wonderfully. The skies were overcast throughout Wednesday and right up through showtime, but the sun broke through the haze just as the concert began.

The Rubber Bowl, and the carnival atmosphere such a large arena generates, might have been right for the Grateful Dead. But booking two or three nights at Blossom Music Center would have been a far better choice for Dylan and Petty, and with far better results for the fans.