To know Bob Dylan is to experience him live. But for those making do with Dylan's sprawling bootlegs as he criss-crosses the globe this year, Thursday's Dylan Fest offered the goods from a revolving lineup of guests – including Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs – during the first of two nights at Irving Plaza in New York, to benefit Amnesty International.
Think of the 10th annual bash, which is billed as "a night to get drunk and celebrate Bob Dylan's 71st birthday," as a Memorial Day barbecue without the backyard and the meat. The beer-heavy ambience encouraged letting loose, and the Cabin Down Below Band, also of Petty Fest and Stones Fest fame, kept its three-hour set tight as one vocalist after another took the stage for each song. The roster included members of Dawes, Steve Schiltz of Longwave, Christopher Chu of POP ETC and the Tangiers Blues Band – and a few actors, from Justin Long to Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte – each honoring Dylan's music with their own interpretations.
The band kicked off with "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," from Bringing It All Back Home, with Rolling Stone contributing editor Austin Scaggs singing lead. Father Boz joined with mesmerizing guitar solos that stretched "Visions of Johanna" into a languid beauty early in the night. There were 30 tunes in all, mostly devoted to Dylan's mid-Sixties period.
"It's a rare artist that people can sort of rally around and have it be so multi-dimensional," Guster's Ryan Miller said over a beer backstage. Miller first heard Dylan 20 years ago while in college, discovering him through the Band's Big Pink and The Basement Tapes. He performed the latter album's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" at the show, a well-attended tradition that happens not far from Greenwich Village, where Dylan put down his musical roots in 1961. "It's a very downtown New York thing, because it's not reverse-engineered," said Miller. "There's not like a bunch of weird, obvious pop stars."
Among the familiar faces in the crowd: Regina Spektor, who was back in New York after a week of promoting her new album, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, in London. "My phone is just full of Dylan and the Beatles – that's, like, the food," Spektor told Rolling Stone. While she didn't perform on Thursday, Spektor will play "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at Friday's show, a mouthful of a title that she was thrilled to remember after last year's Dylan Fest, where she took an ill-fated stab at "Mr. Tambourine Man." Laughed Spektor, "I forgot all the lyrics, literally. I messed it up so bad that I feel like I emotionally can't handle messing up!"
Backstage, Spektor embraced Kristen Wiig, who was in attendance with her boyfriend Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes. Wiig confirmed her departure from Saturday Night Live and cheered on her now-former castmates Sudeikis and Forte as the pair duetted on "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," beers in hand. Later, she joined them onstage for two lines of "Isis."
Folk singer Nicole Atkins played a stunning version of the set's most contemporary song, "Standing in the Doorway," from 1997's Time Out of Mind. Other high points included the Whigs' singer-guitarist Parker Gispert's take on "I Want You," the crowd-pleaser "Tangled Up in Blue" from Mikki James, and the closer, "I Shall Be Released," which featured the night's complete lineup (and Wiig standing on a drum riser). The scene was reminiscent of the big finale from the Band's farewell concert film, The Last Waltz.
Jody Porter of Fountains of Wayne said that his father, a folk musician in the Sixties, turned him on to Dylan as a child. "When you start digging into the music, it's very, very complicated," Porter said after performing "Ballad of a Thin Man," adding, "With the phrasing on this thing tonight, it really took some cheat sheets for me, to be honest with you."
Not everyone present was a lifelong Dylan fan. "When his first album came out I was, like, in high school and I was a jazz fan. So I didn't get it. I didn't relate to it in any way," Fagen said. "I guess it was when Bringing It All Back Home came out," he said, pausing. "That, like, blew my mind."
Dylan Fest also celebrated the life of the late Levon Helm, the Band drummer and singer who died in April. Fagen, who is married to the mother of Levon's daughter Amy Helm, often played with the drummer at his famous Midnight Rambles in Woodstock. "It was sad," Fagen recalled of the last time he performed with Helm, in February. "He was very courageous. That's what he wanted to do in the last weeks of his life: he wanted to play."
Those attending Friday's set can expect more Levon and Dylan love, as the musicians take on another sweep through Dylan's 50-year catalog. As for the birthday boy, Dylan wrapped up his South and Central America tour in Mexico City on May 12th, and after 50 years of moving the world with his music, he'll achieve another milestone next Tuesday, when President Obama presents him with the Medal of Freedom.