There are few artists in history worthy of the type of honor Mr. Bob Dylan received on Monday, May 16, at the Palace Theatre. Musician after musician came to the stage armed with their instrument and a variety of Dylan tunes, none predictable. With the proliferation of material there is to choose from, from all time periods, presented in all styles (from acoustic, to blues to reggae), Dylan is the type of artist other artists can come together on.
Even more amazing – after five decades of writing, recording and performing – he’s still going.
At 70, Bob Dylan is still touring the world, just recently back from China, and still amazing, frustrating and leaving audiences speechless with his unpredictable stage performance, often turning his own songs upside-down.
As Rob Stoner, bandleader of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue from 1975 to 1978 and a guest on Monday night said, “Sometimes we would rehearse something one way and then he’d get up on stage that night and do it an entirely different way in a different key. It’s a real struggle for some of the musicians. But we got through it, through the challenge. And nobody could get away with that but him.”
That’s always been the beauty of Dylan. Lots of people can write a song. Many can write a great song. But Dylan has not only written hundreds of fantastic songs, he still constantly finds new ways to play and present them.
No walls contain him. No boundaries intimidate him and he’s certainly never been fearful of what the media will say or the disapproval he might get from fans.
Perhaps it’s arrogance. Perhaps it’s brilliance.
When I was first old and aware enough to start recognizing and understanding what and who Dylan is, I pulled a quote from the book, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader by Benjamin Hedin that has always stuck with me. Dylan said, “Music has given me a purpose. As a kid, there was rock. Later on, there was folk-blues music. It's not something that I just listen to as a passive person. It has always been in my blood and it has never failed me. Because of that, I'm disconnected from a lot of the pressures of life. It disconnects you from what people think about you...It's natural for me."
Something about that quote embodies Dylan and embodies some of what happened at the Palace Theatre on Monday night. The musicians all brought something unique to the stage, whether it was presentation or instrumentation or song choice, but there was an underlying understanding that music gave them a purpose, gave everyone there a purpose, and that Dylan could be, for a night, that securing knot. At the same time, when these artists performed, not played, a song, but really performed a song, you could see how the music took them elsewhere. It was an experience you could see, feel and understand by being present. Nothing was superficial. Nothing was without feeling. Music disconnected those artists, but at the same time, connected everyone in a common experience.
Dylan, sir, you always get me thinking.
But regardless of the philosophy behind it all (and of course there are Dylan philosophy books; I’ve read one), on a more basic level – the music was unbelievable.
Leo Crandall came out slamming his acoustic strings, raw and loud. Loren Barrigar and Mark Mazengarb let their fingers fly swiftly over strings with Barrigar’s smooth voice matching their seamless duet. Professor Louie and the Crowmatix, with Dylan’s former drummer, the superb Gary Burke, exploded with big sound and wild, uninhibited passion as did L’l Georgie, pounding on his keys and surrounded by strings, saxes and even a French horn. Donna Colton performed a heart-wrenching and beautifully precise cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” one of the biggest stand-outs of the night. Mark Hoffmann traded deft guitar solos with Fab Cat guitarist Arty Lenin and Colin Aberdeen took it all down to the soft, folsky Dylan with a harmonica holder around his neck and an acoustic guitar on his lap, telling stories about his Australian roots and a friend he lost.
And then the rock star entered the room.
Rob Stoner looks like a cross between Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Keith
Richards (a much younger, less dead-looking Keith). He’s got that rock star edge – that unbridled confidence that undoubtedly got him where he is. He
took his solos behind his head and shook his ass and told someone in the
audience “Fuck You, What are you a music critic?” when they made an unfavorable
comment about a Dylan album. And for him – it worked. His trio, The Rob Stoner
Band, was sickeningly talented and nonchalant about it all. Guitarist John Guth
tapped up and down his guitar neck on “All Along the Watchtower” while dancing,
kicking his feet side-to-side, and drummer Evan Rossiter sat
with his back hunched, visibly chewing gum as he kept every beat right in time.
The night ended with every remaining musician on stage performing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” an appropriate conclusion for a long but incredible night.
Though the show wasn’t perfect, it’s an appropriate start for something promoter and producer Tom Honan would like to make an annual event. Set changes were tough and took considerable time with so many musicians moving around the stage. The show was a marathon, spanning nearly four hours and it was painfully scheduled for a Monday night. However, the reason for the day choice is easy to figure out – when you’ve got that many musicians gathering together, what night of the week can everyone play? …Not Friday.
Overall, the event was a success. It was an privilege to see so much talent in such a relatively short amount of time.
So, happy birthday Mr. Dylan. And hey, thanks for the party.