As any serious aficionado knows, Bob Dylan is a virus that gets into the bloodstream. Given sway, Dylan’s music haunts and lingers, a fever that fades and returns at different times in a life, various strains from different eras seizing one from time to time, a Blood On The Tracks September giving way to a New Morning spring and a Freewheelin’ fall. Unlike a great many living myths, Dylan’s actual craftwork, the music, delivers legendarily, filled with surprising melodies, gut punch truths, and scalpels for slicing away false faces. He can be fun but rarely without still pricking us in sore spots.
Despite wide dissemination in popular culture, Dylan’s songs feel personal, his eerily accurate divining rod guiding our specific steps despite the many fellow travelers with us on the path. It’s this quality – the resounding sense of private ownership one can feel about his work – that lends Dylan’s catalog so well to interpretation. To be fair, there are far more terrible, miss-the-mark versions of Bob’s ditties than there are keepers, which just speaks the idiosyncratic nature of his music. But, there wasn’t a dud rendition to be had at Dylan Fest in San Francisco. The several-year-running NYC Best Fests are making their way to the City by the Bay, and this utterly winning homage to the man born Zimmerman was a straight up joy to behold, a real gift to any Dylan fan, and a demonstration of what gifted, dedicated players can do when they pool their talents and enthusiasms.
Backed by The Cabin Down Below Band – as fine a house band as the Impound has ever encountered – a pleasing array of national and local musicians took their turn in the guest spotlight to perform one or two Dylan songs. It’s a cutting contest format with everyone on point to shine and possibly even outshine the previous guests. This makes for some healthy competition, and the whole thing rolls along seamlessly despite the diversity because of the great skill, think-on-their-feet instincts, and just plain old chops of The Cabin Down Below guys – Alex Levy (guitar, vocals), Austin Scaggs (bass, vocals) and Matt Romano (drums). Taking their name from a deep cut on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, the band, aided by Josh Lattanzi (The Candles / The Norah Jones Band) [Guitar], Pete Remm (Invisible Man / The Norah Jones Band) [Organ] and Dave “Moose” Sherman [Piano], on many selections, showed the value of having fundamentally solid foundations for every choice. This allowed the guests to trot up and do their thing without worry that the basics were well in hand, prompting many to cut loose or dig into their recesses for impassioned turns.
San Francisco hosted a tasty array of special guests including Lukas Nelson, The Coup’s Boots Riley, local rock ‘n’ roll ironman Chuck Prophet, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn & Tad Kubler, Grace Potter, Doyle Bramhall II, awesome real rockers The Whigs, and more. But the point of Dylan Fest, at least to my sensibilities, is joyful engagement with the music of a master that’s equal parts homage and kick-out-the-jams shindig. Face it, few of us were at the closing of Winterland with The Band and other iconic, guest studded gatherings in rock’s storied past, but we can experience something akin to those heady gatherings at Dylan Fest, and, one suspects, at Petty Fest and Stones Fest, the other two occasional concert group gropes curated by The Cabin Down Below Band, who it’s worth noting are the very rare exception to the general rule that bands comprised of industry veterans usually suck out loud. It didn’t hurt matters that this show took place at a bona fide classic rock palace, Great American Music Hall, which hums with history from its bawdy Gold Rush days right through countless powerhouse concerts through the decades. Cabin Below Band’s Alex Levy seemed a natural in this setting, working backstage pre-show, taking different musicians aside and working up loose game plans, stoking their excitement, rhapsodizing about Dylan, and bolstering collective confidence. As a corner man, in the parlance of boxing, one would be hard pressed to find better than Levy.
Yes, there were highlights but each person’s picks, like one’s preferences in Dylan’s catalog, will vary wildly. For my own part, I was blown away early by Neal Casal’s blistering attack on “Isis,” which channeled some of the percolating Rolling Thunder Revue wildness and muscle. Tim and Nicki Bluhm were the model of stage sweethearts on “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” and Chuck Prophet brought the walls down with aplomb on “Tweeter & The Monkey Man.” Ruby Amanfu was a real treat every time she stepped up, a singer vibrating with feeling one can really feel in their bones. And what’s not to dig about The Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston growling through “All Along The Watchtower”? But again, it’s the whole of the thing that’s really impressive, the flow and spark of it all, and how no one, despite their commercial popularity, is given greater sway or spotlight.
Dylan was the star of the night, and it was apparent that each guest had handpicked their selection so each turn offered reverence and private connection for the artists, the performances serving as a love offering to Dylan’s creations that all can easily enjoy. A line from “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” popped into my head late in the evening: “Alive with fiery breath.” Ultimately, this is what Dylan Fest and its curators have done – blow upon the still-glowing embers of a great American songbook in ways that make the music stand up and dance.
This event was also a benefit for Sweet Relief, which provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems. It’s as worthy a cause as DI can think of so if you can donate pop over here. The evening was sponsored by one of the Impound’s favorite whiskies, Jameson (which allows 100% of proceeds to go to charity), and we gotta say we really dug the limited edition Black Barrel variety that flowed backstage. We take our whiskey seriously around the Impound. Count on that.
Setlist with Guest Musicians
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Alex Levy), Don’t Think Twice (Ruby Amanfu), Positively 4th St. (Erika Wennerstrom), Isis (Neal Casal), Every Grain of Sand (Victoria Williams w/ Lee Gallagher), Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Chuck Prophet), It Takes A Lot To Laugh (Kelley Stoltz), Most Likely You Go Your Way (Tim & Nicki Bluhm), As I Went Out One Morning (Elvis Perkins), Motorpsycho Nightmare (Elvis Perkins w/ Jesse Lauter), Make You Feel My Love (Lara Johnston), It’s A Hard Rain (Rayland Baxter), Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? (Boots Riley w/ Jason Roberts), I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Chase Cohl), All Along The Watchtower (Tom Johnston), I Want You (The Whigs), I Wanna Be Your Lover (The Whigs), Simple Twist of Fate (Lukas Nelson), It’s Alright Ma (Lukas Nelson), Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (Grace Potter), License To Kill (Craig Finn & Tad Kubler), Where Are You Tonight? (Craig Finn & Tad Kubler), Lay Lady Lay (Midlakes’s Eric Pulido & Joey McClellen), Tweeter & The Monkey Man (Chuck Prophet), You Ain’t Going Nowhere (Erika Wennerstrom), Not Dark Yet (Ruby Amanfu), I Shall Be Released (Doyle Bramhall II w/ Ruby Amanfu), Maggie’s Farm (Doyle Bramhall II w/ Ruby Amanfu), Knocking On Heaven’s Door (finale with lots of folks).
Some clips from Dylan Fest in NYC a few days earlier