The old maxim that Bob Dylan’s songs are better when other people perform them may be a lot of bollocks, but they sure do lend themselves to reinterpretation. Tuesday night at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the Best Fest hosted the first night of its 16th annual Dylan Fest in honor of the Bard’s 76th birthday, trotting out nearly 50 musicians to take a stab at 30 or so of his songs. There were some living legends, some wild script flips, and the requisite Last Waltz-style singalong, but these 10 moments were the best of the night. Night 2 gets underway this evening, with tickets still available.
There were some big personalities in the room at Dylan Fest, but none were as noticeable as Wynonna’s. Showing up barefoot, Wynonna brought along her own players, the Big Noise, to step in for the house band, the Cabin Down Below Band (who did a stellar job adapting to the night’s many changes of direction). Wynonna turned “Lonesome Day Blues” into a rousing show tune, but the real highlight was her chilling rendition of the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid opus “Billy #4,” which became a slow death march that even saw her playing a harmonica solo. Twice, just to get it right – because, you know, she’s Wynonna.
Wynonna made for one awfully tough act to follow, and John Paul White only had a single chance to follow it up – literally. The former Civil Wars singer was only scheduled to perform at the first of the two nights of Dylan Fest. But he answered well, choosing, in his own words, “the most depressing song” he could find, “You’re a Big Girl Now” off Blood on the Tracks. It proved a ghostly, spare take on one of Dylan’s greatest heartbreak songs, which worked best because White sidestepped Dylan’s idiosyncratic phrasing for something more lilting and melodic.
Dylan may be a creature of New York, but he cut some of his best albums in Nashville – and on each of those occasions, Charlie McCoy helped him do it. So it was a nice, if not almost necessary, touch to have McCoy – who, like Dylan, just turned 76 – onstage slinging his harmonicas, a direct connection to those recordings from five decades ago. McCoy sat in on several songs, including Valerie June’s delightfully inventive “Don’t Think Twice,” but more than any he elevated Richard Hawley’s “House of the Rising Sun,” which included rockabilly legend Duane Eddy on baritone guitar.
Blues Traveler’s John Popper was one of several other guest harmonica players to show up during the night (Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael appeared a few times himself), but he chose the most bizarre song of the night for his appearance. That was thanks to Paul Cauthen’s wild take on “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which gave Wynonna a run in the outsized personality department. The Texas singer waltzed out in a Man in Black duster and prowled the stage like a frenetic arachnid, an arbiter of doom with a booming voice. Cauthen’s leering performance belonged in a Twin Peaks dream sequence, which was just about perfect.
Cauthen wasn’t the only one getting weird, nor was he the only one who took a page from Slow Train Coming, Dylan’s first album as a born-again Christian – Shooter Jennings tackled the far more obscure “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” Some of the best song choices of the night were the lesser-known ones (the appearance of Eighties gems “Everything Is Broken” and “Silvio,” courtesy of the Texas Gentlemen and the Whigs, respectively, were both welcome), but Jennings owned every bit of his homage with a truly eccentric performance. His rhinestone preacher outfit was its own, on-point nod to Dylan’s born-again phase.
Speaking of those lesser-known gems, many of Dylan’s minor masterpieces — particularly from the Seventies and Eighties – made heavy use of backup singers, and the ones who showed up Tuesday managed to take on some starring roles. The Watson Twins were a key part of Rayland Baxter’s “The Man in Me,” then turned around and helped anchor Jennings’ performance. Larkin Poe were also fixtures of the night, with their backup work on “Silvio” suggesting they could;ve easily held down a song of their own, if given the chance. Even Cauthen’s backup singers of Nicole Atkins and Taylor Luby stood out – no mean fit amidst the sensory overload.
Dylan’s music may be all about the lyrics in some peoples’ minds (and rightfully so, given that those words earned him a Nobel Prize), but it wasn’t all about the singers last night. It was no surprise to see Butch Walker go Hendrix on “All Along the Watchtower” – considering that Dylan himself considers Hendrix’s version to be definitive – but Walker brought the pyrotechnics for a particularly frenetic reading of the song. His flailing guitar work made for a show in and of itself, but what really nailed it was his Lynyrd Skynyrd-style dueling solo with Jason Isbell guitarist Sadler Vaden that finished it off.
If Walker’s was a virtuosic display, then Nashville’s Moon Taxi used their sonic explorations to seek out some darker territory. Their cover of “Masters of War” started off quietly but built quickly into a sinister, swirling maelstrom that added real emotional weight to Trevor Terndrup’s already heavy vocal. Plenty of the night’s artists completely reimagined the songs they did, but Moon Taxi’s prog-rock had the biggest payoff in that department. In particular, Wes Bailey’s mad-scientist organ solo, which got so heated that he stood up out of his seat to play, invoked the apocalyptic visions that Dylan intended when he wrote the song.
The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser was one of the few artists to take a stab at Dylan’s later work, with a faithful rendition of the grizzled crooner in “Standing in the Doorway.” But it was Boz Scaggs, tackling another Time Out of Mind cut in “Love Sick,” who really nailed the part, doing the best straight take of anyone the whole night. His duet of “Corrina, Corrina” with Richard Hawley was spoiled a bit by sound tech issues, but it was still fun to see him share the stage with his son, Austin, who emceed and held down bass duties with the Cabin Down Below Band.
The all-star singalong of “I Shall Be Released” made for a fitting way to close out the night, but it felt like a bonus rather than a finale thanks to the pair of Elle King songs that preceded it. Her stripped-down duet of “It Ain’t Me Babe” with Shakey Graves was as playful and charming as it was beautiful, but she turned around and belted out a raging “Hurricane” that befitted its headlining position. King didn’t need any help bringing down the house, but she got a key assist all the same from Odessa, whose furious violin work topped even the original.