Dylan turns 71. Through the many ups and down of a career that is nearly as colorful as some of his surreal songs - commandeering his vessel (although sometimes a rickety one at that) onward into the wild seas of the genre confused present decade, Dylan has yet ceased to leave the public eye. Even more so has he ceased to tend to the soft corner of his long-time throng of followers’ unabashed and attentive hearts.
Dylan has done it all, and mostly anyone you’d bump into on the street could recount the story at a hat’s drop. From his dusty string beginnings as a Dylan Thomas thumping, Guthrie-imitating, Greenwich Village meanderer – to the more famed politically-stirring troubadour hoisted high above the shoulders of a generation looking for a voice – into becoming the so called “betrayer” of carefully bent and obsessive folk-demanding ears – ascending onwards into becoming a bit of a Salvador Dali of roots-tinged songwriting – saddling up to house his New York pony in the more unfamiliar stables of Nashville’s country music landscape – veering into the unforeseen sharp turn of diligently carrying the flag as an ambassador of Christianity – dancing around in a not so well refined arena of Hollywood – and further on into becoming an entire casserole dish of his previous incarnations while managing to find a voice with the younger upcoming generations, Dylan has, well, changed a bit over time.
Our scruffy, ever-changing little city is now proud to have commemorated eight occasions concerning the birthday of this beloved shape-shifting pioneer. This is a tradition here in Knoxville that many fans, young and old, are proud to claim.
It was a lively First Friday. The gallery perusing crowd was spreading throughout downtown Knoxville and as for me, I was scrambling about town trying to tie some last minute odds and ends together. Previously I had only attended one Bob Dylan Birthday Bash, back in ’08 when it was still in the World’s Fair Park, and needless to say I was a bit ashamed at my spotty attendance record. Bob has probably single-handedly wired more than few of my creative neurons together, assisted me through the lonesome periods and taught me that it’s okay to be a little rough around the edges. I figured the least I could do was to get up and go pay tribute to the old fellow.
I hurriedly made my way to a Square, which was recently awash with overnight showers, to find that the music had already begun. There was a healthy scoop of, oh say, 40 people who were either taking advantage of provided seating or reclining in their fold-out camping chairs. The sun was whipping its head back and forth behind some overcast, trying to get a peek at the happening as the Detroit Daddies were embarking on an acoustic, true-to-the-record “When The Ship Comes In”. I grabbed a spot on the stage-side patio of the Preservation Pub, ordered a frosty beverage and anchored my own little ship into the dock.
I guess I have to say that I really didn’t know what to expect. Events like these can more often than not lean towards crowd-pleasing renditions of popular numbers, while over looking some of the more die-hard favorites, especially in an open to the public gotta-try-n’-please-everybody venue such as Market Square’s. Market Square, out of necessity, has always delicately maintained that balance. Not saying I wouldn’t be more than pleased to sit through hours of Tambourine Mans or Simple Twist of Fates, but I must say I was feeling a bit more on my toes when The Detroit Daddies steered into a satisfying rendition of “I Want You” from Blonde on Blonde, complete with Michael “Crawdaddy” Crawley’s raspy, earnest voice.
“Bob’s a wordy critter,” mused Karen Reynolds as she commanded the stage next with a wonderful trio set up including a proficient upright bassist and none other than local lead guitar champion Terry “Teep” Phillips decked out in his tie-dyed t-shirt and blue-jean overalls to bring quite the splash of color to the diorama. Karen’s lower-ranged female vocals slated a new angle on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” before surprising me with an airy, upbeat and almost jazzy take on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. Terry’s unashamed Garcia influences were at home in this platform, and the song seemed to clear the air for cheerful anticipation of creative indulgence that the night would deliver. She ended the set with a chuggin’, toe-tapping “Mississippi” and garnered much response.
Evan Carawan & Friends cleared the table for an even wider buffet of genres when they sandwiched a far-reaching dulcimer-heavy set in between two instrumental pick n’ fiddle sessions. They made the decision that it doesn’t have to be all Dylan’s music, and after giving “Buckets Of Rain” one of the most unusual rag translations that I have witnessed, they proceeded to cover none other than headliner Tim O’ Brian’s “Fiddler’s Green” from the album of the same name. Trading off vocal duties, Evan on dulcimer took over “Lay, Lady Lay” and somehow managed to mimic Dylan’s disguised voice from the famed studio version, gradually adding textures of dulcimer as the song progressed. There is no mistaking why this man has landed a place on The Heartland Series. Before the final instrumental bout, they did a take on the traditional English folk song “The Cuckoo” and by the time they had left stage the audience had swelled to nearly double attendance.
When Maggie Longmire took the stage, she presented “Things Have Changed” as though she had written it herself. The jazzy piano coupled her deep bluesy voice perfectly as they segued optimally into a swingin’ “Someday Baby”. “I’ll Remember You”, the unlikely and sentimental ballad from Empire Burlesque, found me ready to dust off my own copy of the underrated album and again shouldered Bob Dylan’s dynamic elasticity into the captivated buzz of the square. Maggie’s mic cut out a third of the way through of their ending number “Union Sundown, a protest song from 1983’s Infidels - which was quite a bummer, for it put a damper on a highly energetic version that was readily sweeping through the audience’s pulse. Alas, the final third of the song was salvaged though and ended with a roar of applause.
Will Carter brought the trademark solo acoustic nod to the stage, yet still no “Times They Are a-Changin’” to be found here. He strummed straight through unlikely, band-heavy numbers such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Time Out Of Mind’s heavily covered “Make You Feel My Love” a ballad that has crossed paths with artists such as Adele, Billy Joel and even Garth Brooks. The more suitable “It Ain’t Me Babe” finished off the set with the addition of a mandolin player to add enhanced texture.
With good contrast anchored for the leap into Spirit Family Reunion in place, they sent us all “Walkin’ Down The Line”: a favorite number for Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. Their spontaneous bursts of energy was proud to commemorate the relatively unknown 1971 Dylan recording “Wallflower” which wasn’t ever officially released until the Bootleg Series decades later. To end off the jubilee, a good ole Appalachian sing-along was constructed out of “The Man In Me”: a song which has retained its time tested popularity within the younger generations of nowadays. It was fittingly rough around the edges, and maybe should I say… a bit scruffy?
Now that the crowd was sufficiently lubricated and the gallery-walkers were filing into the ranks, Mountain Soul sent us into “Billy” with dare I say, almost a Jimmy Buffett tinge? Their country & western lull extoled out to the setting sun and eased gracefully into the western swing “Cocaine Blues”. With just enough rowdiness to make the song sound like it came from The Basement Tapes, course southern drawls were abundant as all band members contributed to the backing vocals. They ended the set with a tasteful, but bit less-than-enthusiastic “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” - Dylan’s many times rerecorded 1967 ambiguous, highly scrutinized sing-along. Again the microphones irksomely lost juice following an unexpected bass solo and the crowd improvised their way to the finish line with clapping and vocal duties.
Hot Shot Freight Train plugged in with electric gusto to present their take on “On Thunder on the Mountain”, the surprising opener for Modern Times - known for its unusual remarks towards Alicia Keys. Somehow the vocals even managed to uphold the raspy slur of Dylan’s 2006 charred pipes as the band all took turns blasting licks with fervor. They next gave “The Man In Me” its second appearance of the evening, displaying the song’s flexibility: dressed down and painted up as a garage-band number complete with a brazen Rhode’s piano. I was ecstatic to hear “Tombstone Blues” take off next while only a muted ripple remained from the sun’s grand departure. As people were growing uncomfortably aware of the settling nip in the air - their summer attire’s caught off guard - they remained steadfast and jovial as Hot Shot buried the end of “Tombstone Blues” with a well-paced guitar solo, segueing the scene into a round of applause. I don’t think they could have chosen a more ritzy set-closer than “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, one of my pet numbers. Though caught off guard by the song’s unusual second refrain of the bridge for a short moment, the band gracefully bowed out of their foot-stomping reception with a solid ending and the Square’s reverberating applause.
The crowd had been eagerly anticipating the legendary Tim O’ Brian, and when he opened with “Wicked Messenger” I was confirmed that my first experience with the solo maestro was going to be one for the books. Immediately it was evident that the man can stretch a wide net of sound across a great canyon of space with only his knack for playing seemingly several acoustic parts simultaneously. Without hesitation nor time for applause, he bolted right into “Maggie’s Farm”. I literally walked up and looked around on stage to make sure there weren’t any accompaniment guitarists hiding behind the pillars. With everybody needing a good moment to let the air thin out, Tim laid out a soft blanket with “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and I think even the hyper children sat down and fell into the absorptive tunnel of the mystical Scottish melody. In its delicate nature, the song is relatively unknown, being left off of 1963’s infamous The Times They Are a-Changin’ recordings, only to bounce around in cover repertoires such as the Byrd’s and Bill Henderson’s. On down the line “Lay Down” made a graceful exit song to Tim O’ Brian’s acclaimed Red on Blonde tribute album in ’96. Following the largest applause of the night yet, Tim channeled “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Blowin’ In the Wind”, the latter of which had a few moments of humor when he was forced to restart the song due to a need to get the time-signature correct and then again briefly halted when the wind blew his lyric sheet off the stand. Irony? “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” another rarely-excavated gem chronicled on Tim’s Red On Blonde had a nice hopping undercurrent. The nail biting voice of, oh say… Ralph Stanley manifested in the eyes-closed “Wayfaring Stranger” as Tim brought down the pace once more and then continued onwards with similar tone through “I Shall Be Released” and the tricky changes of Street Legal’s "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)". Tim nailed the strange verbal flourishes of “Everything is Broken” and finally, invited the whole cast of the night on stage for a celebratory sing-along of the spine-tingling “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”.
As the applause slowly faded and Tim shook the last few hands of praise-givers, I made my way down a breeze-nibbled side street. Still electrified at the curious mystery that is Robert Allen Zimmerman, I tried to piece the whole ordeal together. As the magical anthology gets passed from the elder hands to newcomers, it never seems to lose its potency and its rich components seem to only thicken with each further scrutiny. With “Don’t Think Twice” still drifting between my ears, I casually passed by that old dark, dingy alleyway situated behind the square and I kid you not - I swear to Bob that I caught a glimpse of that young Dylan Thomas thumping, Guthrie-imitating, Greenwich Village meanderer sauntering off with his head leaned back trying to piece the whole ordeal together too.