Dylan Fest returned to New York City last night to celebrate the music of Bob Dylan as part of an 11th annual set of concerts raising money for Sweet Relief, an organization that helps musicians in need of medical assistance.
Indeed, the three-hour show at the Bowery Ballroom chose celebration over tribute, treating Dylan's music as the soundtrack to a great party: relatable and rowdy instead of inscrutable and academic. As performed by the polished, understated Cabin Down Below Band and their revolving cast of guest singers, the varied, vast weirdness of Dylan's songbook, spanning more than half a century, was refined and palatable.
The set list played it safe, skirting Dylan's early explicitly political songs and sticking mostly to his late Sixties and Seventies material: Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde were well represented. There was the conventional (Norah Jones' gentle "Just Like a Woman") and the obscure (Elvis Perkins' roadhouse stomp on "Motorpsycho Nightmare"). Jesse Malin revamped "I Want You" as a pop-punk anthem while Charles Kelley of Lady Antellebellum treated "Corinna, Corinna" as a mournful Nashville tearjerker. Midway through the show, Austin Scaggs, the house bassist and MC for the evening, offered up a question to the crowd. "What do you guys think about Street Legal?" he asked, and the otherwise enthusiastic crowd fell silent.
The few times performers did stray from Dylan's Sixties and Seventies catalog, it was done to great effect. Ruby Amanfu's naked, cathartic take on "Not Dark Yet" from Time Out of Mind received the largest applause of the evening, while actor Lukas Hass teamed up with Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney and Dhani Harrison for a rousing take on the Traveling Willburys' 1988 song "Congratulations."
Country and blues were the interpretive genres of choice. Singer and violinist Amanda Shires was a fitting match for the wistful melancholy of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," while her husband Jason Isbell sang "Lay Lady Lay" with weary resignation. Elvis Perkins put on the evening's best Dylan vocal impersonation, singing the John Wesley Harding track "As I Went Out One Morning" in Dylan's deep croon.
The show was a well-oiled machine, with the revolving door of artists briskly swapping places on stage with nary a moment for anecdotes, commentary, reflection or anything apart from the one or two Dylan tunes each performer had selected for the evening. There were plenty of songs to cover, and not a second to waste on anything but the music being honored. "Let's hear it for the real reason we're all here tonight," Scaggs said late in the evening, as if the audience needed a reminder. "Give it up for Bob Dylan," he said, and the crowd politely cheered.
All songs performed by the Cabin Down Below Band (with Danny Clinch on harmonica)
"Gotta Serve Somebody" – Alex Levy
"Tangled Up in Blue" – Mikki James
"Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" – Ruby Amanfu
"Positively 4th Street" – Erika Wennerstrom
"All Along The Watchtower" – Jamie Burke
"Corinna, Corinna" – Charles Kelley
"Love Minus Zero/No Limit" – Steve Schlitz
"From a Buick 6" – Jack Dishel
"I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" – Chase Cohl
"Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" – Mark Seliger with Gus Wenner
"Obviously 5 Believers" – Sammy James Jr.
"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" – Amanda Shires with Jason Isbell
"I Want You" – Jesse Malin with Johnny T.
"Not Dark Yet" – Ruby Amanfu
"As I Went Out One Morning" – Elvis Perkins
"Motorpsycho Nightmare" – Elvis Perkins with Jesse Lauter
"Just Like a Woman" – Norah Jones
"Cold Irons Bound" – Karen Elson
"Congratulations" – Lukas Hass with Patrick Carney and Dhani Harrison
"Buckets of Rain" – Dhani Harrison
"If Not for You" – Dhani Harrison with Doyle Bramhall II
"Maggie's Farm" – Doyle Bramhall II with Ruby Amanfu
"Lay Lady Lay" – Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires
"The Man in Me" – Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires
"Like a Rolling Stone" – Erika Wennerstrom with Austin Scaggs
"Knocking on Heaven's Door" – Everyone