Sunday’s daylong Saratoga Music Festival featured Bob Dylan and six other acts bearing his huge influence.
If Raul Malo’s Mavericks were too diverse for country, Malo was way more so in a set-the-bar-high opener, grafting breakup blues onto salsa sizzles, pumped polkas and jaunty jazz with bold horn bursts. His too-short set climaxed with the crisp kiss-off “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down.” It brought the audience up.
Next, for a band early on the bill — 3:20 to 4 — Gillian Welch and David Rawlings got a surprise encore and big cheers when fans recognized each song and when each ended, also after each jaw-dropping Rawlings solo. Most tunes took the crowd down, in a good, sad way, with depth; but “Sweet Tooth” cheered every body up: It was a trip to the dentist. “Revelator” revealed plenty, and the encore “I’ll Fly Away” gave big lift.
Country-folk rebel Steve Earle conjured Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman and Martin Luther King Jr. in “Christmas in Washington” and encored with “Jerusalem,” idealistic bookends in a sad/angry set. Neal McDonald DJ’ed beats behind Earle’s guitars and rural rasp. Singer/wife Allison Moorer sweetened things for a few songs, most pleasingly in “Down Here Below” about hawks in their adopted New York City home, which she also helped celebrate in “City of Immigrants.”
Earle’s anger was quieter, yet stronger than the wandering, wordy prairie punk Conor Oberst detonated with his Mystic Valley Band; not his main band, Bright Eyes, but similar in its earnest, episodic rock. Those who braved the volume sank into Oberst’s loud sincerity. Big songs were bracingly forceful, the quiet “I’ve Got a Reason” built to a wild wave, and the old blues “Corinna, Corinna” had a focused directness Oberst’s originals mostly lacked, except for “I Don’t Want to Die in a Hospital.”
Tech problems made The Swell Season’s set far less than swell, goading singer Glen Hansard into a tantrum transmuted into blinding-fast strums in Van Morrison’s “Will You Find Me.” It was so cathartic that Hansard mellowed into “Happiness” with Marketa Irglova’s harmonies and piano.
Morale and music zoomed when Levon Helm’s big band burned up blues and songs by The Band, spanning “The Same Thing” in a mellow mood to a triumphant “The Weight” (what else?) with Earle, Welch & Rawlings, and half of the Swell Season singing choruses between Helm’s verses. Classic performances of can’t-miss tunes totaled the crowd, especially the boisterous “Ophelia” and the Appalachian lament “Long Black Veil” and “Anna,” the latter in unplugged, front-porch style — though “Rag Mama Rag” and “Tears of Rage” were even better.
The schedule slid, so Dylan started at 10 p.m., leading his powerful, generic band into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” at a rocking tempo he held throughout the set. Playing keyboards, simulating an organ sound, and harmonica, Dylan growled in abrupt, staccato croaks, changing the chords as much as the beats, but not his words. Most was familiar, if mutated: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” slow and slippery, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” in sped-up slurs, “Desolation Row” broken by odd cadences, “Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)” with a weak harmonica solo, “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” in clipped phrases, a zippy “Highway 61 Revisited,” “I Believe in You” that was majestic in spite of Dylan’s remaking everything.
Those willing to let Dylan chase his muse around his curiosity and diminishing vocal range had a fun, rocking ride; but frustrating for those hoping he’d sound like 1961. Dylan doesn’t try that: He tries other, new, and sometimes strange or dangerous, things; and he sang better at the end than the start.