Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Blowin' in the Wind

Where was I when Dylan went electric? In elementary school.

By the time I was buying records and forging my own musical path, Dylan was passe, or at least in the junior high circles I moved in, he was. And while I could have circled back around at some point to acquaint myself with his  extensive catalog, I never did.

Which is not to say I didn't come around to appreciating his songs, even (especially?) when sung by others, But I was definitely out of the Dylan loop. Years ago, I recall an older friend and massive Dylan fan telling me about a recent Dylan concert, notable because he'd played "Masters of War," which apparently was highly unusual up to that point.

Only problem was I had to go home and look up "Masters of War."

Eventually, I tried to correct my musical inadequacy by reading books such as his chronologically-challenged "Chronicles, Volume I," as well as David Hajdu's "Positively Fourth Street." I made sure to see "I'm Not There" and the iconic documentary "Don't Look Back" in an effort to glean more of Dylan's back pages.

See what I did there? If not, you may be as Dylan-deprived as me.

Still looking to learn, I jumped at the chance to go to Firehouse Theater to see local Americana/bluegrass band Whiskey Rebellion celebrating the music of Dylan.

The producing artistic director expressed surprise to see me there  for something other than a play and a discussion of restaurants ensued.  Next to me was a woman who'd seen the band before when they were doing an evening of Grateful Dead music. Waiting for the show to start, the guy behind me sang along loudly to Stone Temple Pilots, assuring those around him, "I'll stop singing when the band starts."

Instead he stopped when the director came out and said, "Hi. Happy December and happy Hanukkah!" No candle was lit, however.

The show officially began when the singer/guitarist and upright bass player took the stage and launched into "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," a song I knew from the Peter, Paul and Mary version.

Please don't judge.

As we applauded that, the remainder of the band came out: violinist, keyboard player, drummer and banjo player and began a song I didn't recognize. But I was okay with that because I went into this knowing that I likely wouldn't be able to identify every song.

Luckily, I immediately recognized "Forever Young," delivered after the singer explained how exciting it had been to select from so many Dylan songs and spend the Fall learning them. And even a Dylan neophyte like me knew "Like a Rolling Stone" from the first measure.

I mean, I'm not a complete idiot.

"Dylan was such an inspirational songwriter," the singer said, pointing out that with guitarists, later generations built on what guitarists accomplished in the '60s and '70s. "But it never got better than Dylan's songwriting. He was untouchable as a songwriter."

Even I knew this. After all, isn't that how he wound up with the Pulitzer prize?

He went on to posit on Dylan's inscrutability and how his songs could be taken literally or how a person could think he was somehow writing about their own life. He seemed to think the latter was the case with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

After a swig of his Miller beer for his scratchy throat, the singer joked that he need it because, "Dylan had that clear crisp timbre, right?" and the audience (95% of whom could have told you where they were the day JFK was assassinated) laughed.

"Then you need a shot of bourbon for that!" a guy near me suggested.

His revived voice was for "Meet Me in the Morning," a song I didn't know, followed by the spot-on "Political World."

We live in a political world
Courage is a thing of the past
Houses are haunted
Children unwanted
The next day could be your last

After their powerful rendition of the song, the singer looked at the audience and said seriously, "True story," causing a guy down in front to holler out, "Good stuff!"

It was, too. All six musicians were strong players clearly enjoying the chance to get their Dylan on, although if I was in elementary school, they weren't even a gleam in their Daddy's eye when Dylan went electric.

"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" got the full-on treatment with a heartbreaking violin part and a reminder to the crowd that it had been written for the film "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." And while I may have known that at some point, it had long since slipped from my mental Rolodex.

No one should be surprised that I knew "It Ain't Me, Babe" from the Turtles' version, but who knew what a banjo and brushes on the drums could add to it?

Saying that the band needed to get "refilled and tuned up" meant that intermission was imminent and the singer used the opportunity to test our Dylan knowledge. "Everybody must take a break," he announced with an expectant look on his face.

Doesn't quite have the ring of the original lyric, now does it?

They closed the first set with "All Along the Watchtower," which turned out to be the ideal song for shredding on banjo, guitar, violin and keys while the rhythm section held it all down.

I can't even tell you how much more fully Dylan-qualified I felt during intermission.

Around me, I listened as two blond women discussed the benefits of Alexa and two middle-aged men discovered that they'd been at the same high school football game in 1974. I kid you not, they even recalled a short player who could run like hell, though neither remembered the guy's name.

"Ten minutes, that's all it takes in this town to find your connection," one said to the other. If not for the lights going down, I would have turned to him and challenged that theory. Sir, you could talk to me all night and I can guarantee you won't find a connection.

Whiskey Rebellion's second set was all original music and their stellar playing meant that even unfamiliar songs were a pleasure to hear, though as the singer reminded us, these were not Dylan songs because Dylan is at the top of the songwriting pyramid.

An evening of untouchable songs meant that I got a refresher course tonight and even a little inspiration to go deeper, maybe at my next record-listening party. It's never too late to up your Dylan quotient.

I may be late getting on the Dylan train, but only because I didn't know better.

Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now.


  1. What continues to amaze me is how many facets his career has had. I'm still discovering his music, the latest being live recordings from his Christian Era, Trouble No More:


    They display what arguably could be the considered as the peak of his career in live performance with certainly his most passionate singing.

  2. Ooh, thank you for this. I have so much to learn about Dylan...