The fears of experiencing a typical Arkansas summer night were as unfounded last Saturday at Ray Winder Field as they were the last time Bob Dylan played outdoors here, on a mild early August night in 2001. Maybe we should summon Dylan anytime the summer heat and humidity start approaching a 110-degree index.
There were also fears a few weeks back via some insiders that this Dylan and Willie Nelson show was going to tank in terms of attendance, but the turnout was impressive — the cordoned-off area in front of the stage in centerfield that held around 2,000 people was mostly full throughout the show, and the general admission seats in the stands were well-populated except directly behind home plate, which was directly behind the sound stage and a large TV screen. Ironic seeing a ball park filled except for those usually choice seats.
Dugouts were turned into beer stands, the Southwest Airlines picnic area was a major thoroughfare for beer drinking and disposing and, as is always the case for Ray Winder Field, the third-base bleachers were the place for prime people-watching and catching a cool breeze.
More of the crowd seemed on hand for Willie than Dylan, in fact, though in terms of Dylan appearances in Little Rock, it seemed from this viewpoint like his best show yet — a steady rocking effort that hit some high points, particularly on “Highway 61.” And barely a word from the Poet of Rock and Roll could be understood.
There is hope for Ray Winder Field if North Little Rock builds its stadium and the Travs move in 2008. It’s going to cost the city if it’s torn down (a lot of folks forget that expense), and the Little Rock Zoo needs many millions in its plan to absorb it as possible space for a new elephant exhibit.
How about using it as a concert venue? Here’s a space that offers far better sightlines than Riverfest Amphitheatre and can comfortably hold as many fans for outdoor shows. Without a field to worry about if the team moves, there won’t be the concern to protect the outfield and infield grass when the masses show up. The permanent seating, while reversed from the setup at the amphitheater and probably not as comfortable, numbers significantly more.
Neither Ray Winder nor the amphitheatre suffices for Little Rock to draw the major “shed” tours of the summer, the ones that promoters hope will draw crowds of 15,000 or more (Coldplay, Dave Matthews, etc.). The amphitheater needs a couple of million bucks in an overhaul, and that might not help with so much encroaching to keep it from expanding; Ray Winder needs even more than that if baseball doesn’t move north of the river and we hope to keep minor league baseball in town. But, as a concert venue, it looked quite all right Saturday night.
Now, we just need to find a tour out there like Bob and Willie.