On Tuesday night, as the setting sun shimmered meekly through a blanket of gray clouds that lay over the Missoula Valley, Stephen Hoffman of Coeur d'Alene stood halfway between second and third base at Ogren-Allegiance Park, tilting toward center field as he listened intently to John Mellencamp singing a solo acoustic version of "Save Some Time to Dream," off his brand new album, "No Better Than This."
"Yeah," breathed Hoffman at the song's end. "That was awesome. Wow. Good song."
The same, presumably, didn't cross the mind of the four men who stood in a knot next to him, two of them discussing their favorite Bob Dylan songs as a third barked a beer order into his cell phone.
Such was the scene at Tuesday night's double-bill Mellencamp/Dylan concert, the largest in Missoula since the Rolling Stones rocked Washington-Grizzly Stadium four years ago. With a crowd of more than 6,000 in attendance, the two legendary performers gave their fans - who seemed to comprise roughly equal factions in the ballpark - plenty of old favorites and a few curve balls over the course of the evening.
"His songs about working-class America and farm life, that's real Missoula," said Kevin Miltko, a Mellencamp fan who was seeing his musical hero for the sixth time. "So I think it's appropriate that he's here at the ballpark. I'll be happy to hear whatever he wants to play."
As much as Tuesday's concert was a treat for local music fans, it was also a test for Ogren-Allegiance Park, the home of the Missoula Osprey baseball team. Never before had even half as many people traipsed across the well-groomed grass of the park's outfield or queued up at the park's concession stands.
Gates to the concert opened promptly at 5:30 p.m., by which time a long line of concertgoers snaked the length of the parking lot and back again. Things moved smoothly from there, with most of the first-comers ushered into the park within a half-hour. But as the crowds continued to arrive, the stadium's layout - with the gates situated squarely between the two concession stands - began to show its shortcomings.
Despite two extra beer stands put in place near the field's dugouts, congestion at the upper deck's concession stands blocked people from the aisles that led out to the field, causing a human gridlock near the park's entrance.
"Oh my God, you should see the mountain of people here," groaned one man into his cell phone. "It's a mess."
Those stuck in the half-hour-long beer lines likely missed the opening set by the Dough Rollers, a two-piece act whose Hollywood pedigree (one is the son of Harrison Ford; the other is the son of Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne) seemed at odds with their fuzzed-out, growling, often arrhythmic old-style blues.
But there was no missing the arrival of Mellencamp and his five-piece band, who sauntered onto the stage promptly at 7:30 to a roar from the crowd, and kicked into an energetic, slightly downtempo rendition of the 1983 hit, "Pink Houses," followed by a sparsely arranged version of "Paper in Fire." Other hits followed, including a surprisingly effective a capella rendition of "Cherry Bomb" and a playful version of "Small Town," with the crowd calling out the fill-in-the-blank title of the song and Mellencamp vamping at one point, "my wife was 13 years old when I wrote this song in a small town."
His muscular shoulders framed in a tight, black short-sleeved shirt, Mellencamp cut a chiseled figure as he prowled the stage throughout the set, his blonde Telecaster guitar slung over his shoulder. His set reflected that carefully cultivated persona, with all of the arrangements hewing tightly to script. And while the Indiana-born singer has grown increasingly vocal about his politics in recent years, the only sign of such sentiments in his set was painted on bassist John Gunnell's upright, which read, "This Big Ol' Thing Kills Racists."
After closing his set with "The Authority Song," Mellencamp and his band left the stage, sending a fresh tidal wave of humanity toward the beer stands and restrooms. Half an hour later, with darknessblanketing the stadium, the lights went down and the crowd rose again in a wave of cheers as Bob Dylan led his own five-piece band on stage, where they launched into a greasy, grooving rendition of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" - better known as "Everybody Must Get Stoned."
With Dylan's mushmouth vocals tumbling like a rolling stone over the sludgy grooves, the band pushed on through its own parade of classics: "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again;" a number co-written with the Band, "This Wheel's On Fire;" a sing-along version of "Just Like a Woman;" and - appropriately, on the day of America's combat troop withdrawal from Iraq - "Masters of War."
Considerably more animated than in his last Missoula appearance (at the Adams Center, in the summer of 2005), and snappily dressed in a black-and-red suit and tan Bermuda hat, Dylan gave his fans a healthy dose of what they came for.
"With Dylan, it could be good, it could be bad; it just depends which Dylan shows up," said fan Brandon Reel. "That's what always makes it interesting."
Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney contributed to this article.