By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

July 10, 2000

Steamy Riverport Amphitheatre was the wrong place to be Saturday night for fans of a tight
2-1/2 minute rock 'n' roll song.

Between the revisionism of Bob Dylan and the wandering jams of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, there were a lot of folks asking their neighbors, "What the heck is that?" But the two veterans led their marvelous bands through a dizzying array of American classics from the second half of the 20th century.

This may have been a Riverport show that was more enjoyable from the lawn, where a breeze eventually appeared as the sun set. Under the roof, it felt like being in an oven, and not a wisp of smoke from herbal or tobacco mixes was disturbed.

Dylan and his so-called never-ending tour band opened, which apparently came as a surprise to the crowd that was still filing in well into his set. Backed by guitar aces Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper, Dylan opened with a series of acoustic tunes, featuring Garnier on upright bass and Campbell on mandolin.

"Tangled Up in Blue," a favorite from the "Blood on the Tracks" album in 1975, appeared in the acoustic set, and illustrated Dylan's penchant for changing songs not only from night to night, but verse to verse. There apparently are infinite ways to phrase "tangled up in blue." Dylan also took his first harmonica solo here, dancing a bit of a jig to the crowd's delight.

Then the band plugged in, and Dylan the old folkie - dressed in a Western-style black suit and tie - morphed into an impish rock star, slinging his guitar about and occasionally posturing a power chord, all with an eyebrow raised and a grin struggling to get loose.

Dylan's encore brought him up-to-date, opening with the new "Things Have Changed" from the "Wonder Boys" movie soundtrack: ("People are crazy and times are strange - I used to care, but things have changed.")

That was followed by a slightly slowed, tight and twangy "Like a Rolling Stone," a delicate "Forever Young" and a ferocious "Highway 61."

Phil Lesh and Friends carried on the Dead's jam tradition, hitting the stage and playing nonstop for about an hour and a half. Lesh's friends this time out include guitarist Paul Barrere and keyboardist Billy Payne from the band Little Feat; guitarist Robben Ford; and, adding some Missouri interest, drummer John Molo of Lee's Summit.

The band opened with a long jam that never quite hit a groove, a risk that listener and jam band take together. Some of the faithful near the stage even sat down.

But the other side of risk is reward, and when Lesh and friends were in sync, they were riveting. A jam during Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" was propulsive.

By the end of the set, Lesh had not said a word to the audience (that doesn't imply Dylan was a motor-mouth), which had noticeably thinned out. When he returned for the encore, Lesh, the recipient of a new liver about 15 months ago, made a plea to the crowd to become "organ donors, give blood, save a life."

Then Barrere led the group through a hot version of The Band's "Rag Mama Rag," marred by a bad sound mix that buried his slide guitar but brought a rare show of emotion from Lesh: a big grin.