Can there be too much Dylan?

Jill Fisher

The Infidels perform at Sacred Heart Music Center.

The week leading up to Duluth Dylan Days was nearly as exciting the annual birthday celebration of Bob’s 82nd birthday. But due to the Reader’s Summer Guide issue taking up most of the print space, I wasn’t able to share my musical experiences and observations in a timely column.

As usual, there was plenty of music to be enjoyed around town. On Tuesday, May 16, Crooked Miles entertained folks at Sir Ben’s. It had been a while since this group has played, though each of the members—Rick Bruner, Misisipi Mike Wolf and Gordon Lewis—have been busy playing with other groups. It was a fun show with most of the songs having been penned by Bruner, including one so new it hadn’t yet been titled. Misisipi Mike did perform one of his too: “Boy That Roy Can Play.”  

A trip across the High Bridge to have a burger at the Anchor Bar provided the occasion to drop into the Cedar Lounge where we got to hear the second set by Water Cat (Emma Musto and Henry Bullard Turnquist). Henry played three different guitars—resonator, acoustic and electric—exchanging them according to the cover they were performing, which included a wonderful range of genres. I noticed his added drumpad; the percussion enhanced their sound. It is particularly wonderful to hear Emma sing songs in her native French tongue.

A small audience was there to enjoy their music. I’m betting that one of these days folks will discover them and turn out in larger numbers for their gigs.  

The long-awaited Martin Sexton concert at the West Theater was next on Thursday, May 18. This solo singer-songwriter and acoustic guitarist has been back to Duluth regularly since I saw him perform back in the late 1990s at the now defunct Amazing Grace Café in Canal Park with an audience of about 30. This West show was sold out for weeks attesting to the strong following he has.

From the inquiries I made afterwards, his fans were thrilled with his performance; not a negative word was spoken. I especially liked Sexton’s medley of songs that used an identical chord progression to his latest original, which he related his wife said sounded like Bon Jovi.  These included “Wagon Wheel” and “Let It Be.”

For all his sunny, upbeat songs, I found “The Beast In Me is the Best of Me” (on the darker side) the most interesting. And his yodeling was not half bad either.  

And speaking of yodeling, I got to the Cedar Lounge the next evening, the 19th, to see “Mumblin’ Drew” Temperante, who demonstrated his great yodel with “Richmond Blues.” I have become a fan of his authentic renditions of songs from the 20s and 30s as well as his original compositions. He gave a particularly excellent performance of Spider John Koerner’s “Good Time Charlie Is Back in Town Again.” He will be performing at AEGIR Brewing Company in Elk River the evening of Saturday, June 10. You might want to check him out if you happen to be in the area.  

On Saturday, May 20, I had the kickoff for Duluth Dylan Fest (DDF) on my calendar, so you can imagine my dismay when I learned that Bent Paddle’s 10-year Festiversary was scheduled for the same day. Fortunately Bent Paddle’s event began in the afternoon and it was a beautiful day. The lineup—Woodblind, The Gemstones honoring AfroGeode, Feeding Leroy, Charlie Parr, New Salty Dog and Big Wave Dave & the Ripples—was not to be missed. But of course I did miss most of the acts since I was due to be at Earth Rider for DDF that evening. It was a real street festival with an entire block of Michigan Street cordoned off and filled with vendors, plus there were games for families and two stages, the grounds being expanded to the west to provide a second stage. The place was wonderfully packed with revelers. I was sorry to have to leave. I can only hope that next year there won’t be any overlap between the two festivals.  

I arrived at Earth Rider Festival Grounds in Superior a little before 7 pm to hear Hard Rain, a St. Louis-based Dylan tribute band. The group is comprised of Michael Twente (electric guitar and vocals), Ray Greenfield (drums), Doug Raymur (keyboards), Lee Bowers (lead guitar and vocals) and Mark Petri (bass and vocals). Twente formed the band back in 2002 to play Dylan covers and has since expanded its repertoire to include covers of The Band and The Traveling Wilburys to acknowledge Dylan’s participation in those groups. (The Curmudgeon wondered why they did not cover the songs Dylan was credited with writing.)   

The band members were psyched to be in Duluth for DDF and visiting Minnesota for the first time. Fortunately the warm weather continued making for a lovely evening for the outdoor concert. Beginning promptly at 7, Hard Rain played non-stop for three hours to the delight of all the Dylan fans who waited patiently all year to hear the bard’s songs in a live concert. And while the setlist included the well-known standards (“Just Like A Woman,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” etc.) they included more obscure tunes as well. Two of my favorites were “Everything’s Broken” and “Things Have Changed.”

In response to remarks about their not taking breaks, Twente said “Why take a break when you’re in the groove, especially when there are so many Dylan songs?” The dancers  appreciated the show with their movement keeping them warm as the temperatures cooled after sundown.  

Sunday was Hibbing Dylan Days and what a gorgeous day it was for a road trip to the Range with the greening of the trees along highways 53 and 37. A brunch at Sammy’s Pizza at 11:30 am brought out local residents with tales of the youthful Dylan. One shared was a storekeeper’s remembrance of dreading seeing Bobby Zimmerman ride up on his bike as he had a habit of squeezing all the candy bars before making a selection!

A tour of the high school was offered, but the Curmudgeon and I skipped it, having taken it last year. Rather, we took a walking tour of other “Dylan” locations around town. A gathering at the former Zimmerman residence began mid-afternoon featured the music of Dylan (plus a few of their own) performed by Gene Lafond and Amy Grillo. We heard the duo last year and were pleased to be entertained by them again. And the birthday cupcakes served were delicious!  

That evening, the first of two John Bushey Memorial lectures was presented via Livestream. Seth Rogovoy who authored Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet, was most interesting with his side-by-side analysis of Dylan lyrics that paraphrase Old Testament verses. I didn’t realize, until after tuning in, that I had heard him lecture in person about 10 years ago in Massachusetts (back when I was living in Woodstock, New York). His talk was in no way redundant, but a further exploration that was very well presented. If it isn’t available on YouTube or alternate stream, it should be!  

Two DDF events were held on Monday evening, May 22. The first, which began at 5:30 pm, was the “Acoustic Dylan Jam” held at Carmody Irish Pub, with Dylan song books given out to attendees. This was a bit more chaotic than last year’s event of the same name held at Earth Rider. Here the miking was difficult so the sound wasn’t ideal and the space insufficient for the number of participants. However, there were some enjoyable moments. (Full disclosure: I participated in the jam singing and playing washtub bass.)

The second musical event that evening provided a stark contrast to the first: The Basement Tapes Band rockin’ it up at Bent Paddle Brewing in Lincoln Park.  

What a group! With top-notch musicians Marc Gartman (guitar); Jacob Mahon (keyboards); Lee “Red” Martin (pedal steel guitar); Veikko Lepisto (bass guitar); Teague Alexy (guitar and harmonica), the energetic Tyler Dubla (drums) and sweet-sounding vocalist Sara Krueger, this band couldn’t have been tighter or hotter. The songs on the setlist were well known by most everyone in the crowd, so there were joyous sing-alongs. “The Mighty Quinn” never sounded so good. Two songs with vocals and harmonica by Teague showed him at his finest. The crowd was ecstatic, insisting they keep playing well after closing time. This performance set a high bar for everything that followed.  

New Salty Dog & Friends drew a full house to Wussow’s Concert Café in West Duluth for “Dogs Do Dylan” on Tuesday, May 23. The “friends” joining NSD included Teague Alexy on harmonica throughout, Lee Martin on board to lead “Senõr” with acoustic guitar and Katia Nartovich, also on acoustic guitar, leading on “She Belongs To Me.”

If the bar was set high the previous evening, this group cleared it with no problem. Although the songs performed were pretty much the usual Dylan numbers, this group made them their own, proving once again that we have fabulous creative musicians in our own locale.    

Dylan’s actual birthday on Wednesday, May 24, was celebrated at noon with a party in the front yard of the former Zimmerman residence in Duluth, now owned by Dylan memorabilia collector Bill Pagel. Greg Tiburzi performed Dylan tunes on the front porch for about an hour and a half in 44-degree weather with a wind chill reading of 36!  His rendition of “Blowin’ In The Wind” was particularly apt.  

Later that evening Cowboy Angel Blue played indoors at Cedar Lounge rather than outdoors at Earth Rider’s festival grounds due to the cool temps and brisk wind off the lake. The trio, comprised of Bill Maxwell, Billy Bulinski and James Paavala, has regularly performed at Dylan Fests for years and has a strong following. Along with its repertoire of Dylan covers (including one of my favorites: “Things Have Changed”) they like to sneak in a Neil Young cover or two.

Mark Gartman and friends followed those sets playing Grateful Dead songs that Dylan evidently played with that band years back. I didn’t hang around for the entire concert, not being a Deadhead myself.  

Thursday, May 25 found about 80 Dylan fans at Sacred Heart Music Center to hear New York-based Jeff Slate, along with guitarist Mark Bosch. Slate had an interview with Dylan that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Both he and Bosch are polished musicians who gave an energetic concert that included one of Slate’s original tunes as well as many of the most popular Dylan songs. He also covered the Traveling Wilbury’s tune, “Handle With Care,” which is associated with Roy Orbison.

Several of us were curious as to Slate’s impromptu switch to the grand piano to play George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Perhaps it was a way to showcase his musical versatility.  

Paul Metsa (acoustic guitar) and Sonny Earl (harmonica) opened for Slate, with a short set of Dylan covers and Metsa’s original tune “Jack Ruby.” Sonny sang the song “Don’t Think Twice” to give Metsa’s aging voice a rest. The two joined Slate and Bosch to wrap up the performance with “Everybody Must Get Stoned” and “All Along the Watchtower” for an encore.  

Friday was the annual Dylan Fest Singer-Songwriter Contest at SHMC which, this year, was limited to twelve contestants. Misisipi Mike Wolf took first place for his original tune, “Old Used Car.” (He took third place in last year’s competition.) Nikki Lemire from Richfield, Minnesota, took second place for her unique and fabulous composition, “Let the Rain Come In” wherein she played a floor harp to great applause. Skarlet Woods took third place for her song “You and I” (She placed second last year.) She gave an animated performance that was also well appreciated.  

Unfortunately I missed the second John Bushey Memorial Lecture on the schedule, which was held at Wussow’s Café on Saturday morning, May 27. Several folks extolled the talk by Matt Steichen, host of the Bobcats podcast. Ed Newman put it this way: “It was an absolutely fantastic talk…energizing, uplifting, insightful.”  

That evening I was back at Sacred Heart to hear the Minneapolis-based Infidels, a group composed of members of the Belfast Cowboys and Dan Israel’s band that has graced this venue before. Members of the band are Dan Israel (acoustic and electric guitars), Terry Walsh (piano and acoustic guitar), Steve Brantseg (electric guitar), Bart Bakker (bass) and Dave Haugen (drums). A good-sized audience heard them play the most well-known and popular of Bob’s songs. (They played many of the tunes they had the year before. But they also played a few not so well-known Dylan tunes, including “Mozambique,” “Isis” and “Watch The River Flow.” It was a great concert, though not with the originality of those bands assembled by our local musicians.  

A Sunday brunch concert at Wussow’s was the grand finale to the entire 9-day Dylan Fest. It was opened by Caryn Marshall, who came from California to participate followed by our own award-winning Misisipi Mike Wolf. Her rendition of Dylan tunes sounded much like Joan Baez’s. Either you like that or don’t, but she had a fine voice that was more suited to some songs than others.

Misisipi Mike’s turn was more satisfying as he worked in several songs we hadn’t heard earlier in the week. As a songwriter, he had the forgivable temerity to add a verse to “Song For Woody,” which was a tribute to Dylan himself. MM told the story of Dylan’s first studio job playing harmonica on Harry Belafonte’s 1962 album, “Midnight Special,” standing in for Sonny Terry.

According to MM, Dylan had bought some harmonicas at Woolworth’s on his way to the session and just trashed them when it was done.  

This was a very satisfying but also exhausting festival. As a huge Dylan fan, I was surprised to find myself a bit Dylaned out, undoubtedly due to the repetitions of his most popular works. Did we really need to hear “Rainy Day Woman” (“Everybody Must Get Stoned”) for the umpteenth time? I found it far more interesting to hear the lesser-known tunes.

Perhaps a more pared down DDF next year can avoid this drawback, or maybe by directing the performers to more recent Dylan albums or even dictating that certain albums be covered in their entirety (providing sufficient notice to the selected bands, of course) would be a cure for Dylanitis.

That said, the small group of volunteers, who gave of their time, energy and money, to put on this festival, should be heartily commended for their tireless efforts. THANK YOU!