Dylan Fest: A Celebration of Bob Dylan’s 75th Birthday at the Ryman
There were many tribute concerts in bars, clubs, and performance halls around the country on May 24, 2016, the diamond anniversary of Bob Dylan’s birth. I chose the one that was the second day of a two-night tribute at the Ryman. It was put on by Best Fest, which has produced similar events in the recent past. This fest was also a fundraiser for Thistle Farms, a Nashville-based charity committed to helping a community of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction.
While I will get to my highlights in a moment, the nearly four hours of performances, featuring 31 songs by 26 artists, was not a monolithic reverence for Dylan’s own performances. As the majority of performers are two generations removed from his debut, they have little sense of nostalgia and, thus, besides Dylan’s own recordings, they drew upon their own experiences and musical knowledge.
It was also evident that both a majority of the performers and audience members were from the Nashville area. The crowd was comprised of a diversity of ages, with nary a hipster in sight. That became evident to me when local artists were welcomed with enthusiastic applause and recognition.
As usual with tribute shows, there was a Best Fest house band — the Cabin Down Below Band. But there was a ringer who played on just under half of the songs: harmonicist/multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy. Not only did McCoy play on four of Dylan’s crucial albums from 1965 though 1969, he was the only musician on stage that had worked with him. Most notably, some folks, myself included, believe he is primarily responsible for enabling Dylan to attain that “wild, thin mercury” sound he had sought for Blonde on Blonde. Dylan had tried to nail it in New York, to no avail.
McCoy is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. In the midst of so many younger performers, his gravitas held the evening together in a way few others could have managed. To pay homage to him, every performer acknowledged his presence.
Photos of all the performers, as well as the setlist, are provided in the slideshow that follows, but first: my review.
The chosen songs were quite varied, some obvious, some less well-known, as it should be. The show came out of the gate hard and worked itself up to a crescendo. The early juxtaposition of “Leopardskin Pill Box Hat” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (by Shelly Colvin and Holly Williams, respectively) was inspired. Rayland Baxter’s performance of “To Ramona” was a laconic take on one of Dylan’s best love songs.
Moon Taxi, one of the city’s better regarded rock-based jam bands, did a searing version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which was met with an enthusiastic standing ovation. (After Hendrix, has there ever been a straight version?) But the audience was not seated for long, as Ruby Amanfu took it down several notches a couple of songs later in “Not Dark Yet.” Her performance was powerful in its simplicity — still waters running quite deep. It was extremely affecting.
About smack-dab in the middle of the show came three chanteuses of varying character. Nikki Lane did a plaintive, contemplative “I Threw It All Away,” followed by Kacey Musgraves’ new country “Don’t Think Twice.” Their light, expressive voices were followed by the champ, Wynonna Judd, as if to say “Here’s how it’s done” — some country with an attitude. Judd was the only performer who brought their own band, and the Big Noise made the most of it. The group was tight, offered solos to Judd’s delight, and were all supportive of her growly vocal in “Million Miles.” Wow.
While I find a bit too much of Tommy Emmanuel’s music to be about technique (not that there’s anything wrong with that), his take on “Nashville Skyline Rag” had even McCoy in awe. It was a blistering performance. Local legend Butch Walker did his angry-young-man take on the bluesy “From a Buick 6” to much acclaim.
As good and as varied as the show had been up to that point, the final third was the blowout we had been waiting for. John Paul White, ably supported by McCoy, did “Just Like a Woman.” After hearing so many versions through the years, White’s performance felt as though I was hearing it for the first time. His obvious feel for the song, plus his guitar work and McCoy’s harmonica playing, was revelatory.
Then came the AMA’s darling young son, Jason Isbell, who seemingly looked to the rafters of the Mother Church for his Southern embodiment of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Not only is it a great song that I first heard Joan Baez sing in 1965, it’s the one Dylan himself did, acoustic solo, after the abortive electric set at Newport that same year. Isbell then joined Amanda Shires on “Hurricane.” It seemed an odd choice at first, as Dylan’s vocal was as angry as he had ever been, whereas Shires’ voice lacks that power. However, her playing ate Scarlet Rivera’s alive. With Isbell joining her, the juxtaposition of Isbell’s guitar and her own forceful violin (whose bow strings became frayed) brought the song home.
I first saw Boz Scaggs when he was with Steve Miller, but had not seen him in years. His selection was, perhaps, the one which held the most trepidation — at least for me. “Visions of Johanna” is one of Dylan’s most difficult song to cover. Sure, I have heard fine versions by Chris Smither and Robyn Hitchcock, but few others have even attempted it. It may be because Scaggs was a contemporary of Dylan’s that he was able to both be faithful to the song and and be his own person at the same time. More straightforward than anything, it was one legend saying “here it is” to another.
Speaking of legends, Emmylou Harris followed Boz Scaggs. We all knew what she’d do: “Every Grain of Sand,” which was on Wrecking Ball. The tune had not only revitalized her career, it also reinvigorated her musical prowess. She, too, was a contemporary and supplied background vocals on Desire. Again, the house came down. Judd then came out along with Ann Wilson to do what served as a hymn to Bob, with “Ring Them Bells.” Three divas do not get much better than that.
Harris and Judd then left the stage, leaving Wilson alone with the house band and McCoy at his usual place on stage right, harmonica in hand. What was the rocker going to do? Well, it takes a rocker to fully do justice to “Like a Rolling Stone.” Everyone in the crowd was on their feet, and there was nary a false note in what became a huge sing-along.
Wilson, perhaps more than any other performer, was in sync with McCoy. She often looked at him — not for approval, but to let his glorious light shine. As it was apparent we were not going to get McCoy’s guitar work that made “Desolation Row” the devastating song that it is, Wilson was obviously happy to share that spotlight with the legendary player.
The finale? I have seen many “finales” at multi-guested shows, and this one was obvious one to me. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” gives everyone room to shine, improvise, and result in one fantastic group hug. That was the case here.
Now, enjoy the slideshow and get a feel for what it was like to have been there.