This Bob-Fest was more ambitious than previous years. Bob Markel could rightly call himself a local impresario after the two-nights of all-Dylan songs he produced and promoted, renting the biggest hall in town. He seems to know the Dylan canon well, assigning songs according to what he knew about the various singers and musicians. I was given the task of singing "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Tweeter and the Monkeyman". I also did duets on "Chimes of Freedom" and something my friend Lawrence and I cooked up, a mash-up of "It's Alright Ma" and "Eleven Outlined Epitaphs" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." For this, Lawrence, who also sells coffee for our local roaster, edited a dramatic narrative, cutting and pasting his way to a very successful 6-minute piece of entertainment.
I had planned a simple solo version of "Only a Pawn in Their Game", but as I heard the various voices each bringing their own interpretation to both well-known and lesser-known Dylan tunes, hearing those during the dress rehearsal the day before the gig, I knew I wanted to pull "Only a Pawn" out of the program. I had no re-interpretation. I would've been ashamed to present the version I had neglected to flesh out. That's how good much of this was.
This is what I want to describe: the magical, mythological, spiritual, and cultural celebration that came from this concept of a Bob-Fest in a small town.
Dylan's life-work has been poorly analyzed for 50 years. It would serve all the pundits, writers, and critics well to erase every bit of dogma they have spouted over the years - wipe the slate clean - and attend a Bob-Fest in a small town. Because for this life-long Dylan observer, here, finally, is where it is revealed.
I've always scoffed at those who would try to ascribe meaning to meaningless Dylan songs, and those who would label him a "poet", and those who would label him "america's greatest songwriter", and those who would review his records. My problem with all the analysis was that it depended on known labels. I had come to the conclusion that Dylan had invented his own art-form: neither the song, nor the record, nor the concert, nor his vocal style, the lines he wrote, none of these begin to define his art-form. His art-form cannot be named, not just because it's never been done, but because it barely exists. It is elusive. Like a sub-atomic particle that we can only say exists because we see its effects, we can not say what Dylan's art-form is. We can only see its effects.
Nowhere are the effects more clearly evident than here, 50 years down, in a small town, with real people assuming the roles - the electrician, the cook, the nurse, the auto-supply store clerk, the bartender, the hermit, the local radio station receptionist, the gardener. Here, all these people are playing and singing DYLAN songs. Add to that, the full house audience, seated at tables, sweating and fanning in the poorly ventilated old Portugese Hall, who know the words, and mouth along or sing out when the spirit moves, who push aside the tables when the urge to dance takes hold, any one of whom, placed on stage with a bit of direction, spotlit, against the band, could also present their version of a song, but who, having gladly paid to attend as audience members, play their role just as mysteriously as the chosen musicians do.
There are many lessons here. One is the old content-context relationship. Dylan has famously challenged his concert-goers by re-interpreting, sometimes brutally mangling, his well-known songs. My observation over the decades was that he was insisting that we not point to the recording, the album as his work, rather, we should look to the song. Only now do I understand what he was really saying: "There is nothing to see or hear in ANY of this. Don't look at it, it will disappear." We can record a Dylan performance in the studio, make an object out of it, give it some art-work cover, and sell it in stores or on-line. We think we have captured something. But then he takes some part of it, stuffs a rock-band into a 10 x 10 white translucent box, and sings it completely differently on a tacky TV awards show. And we still can't see or hear it. Even though we just received the most artful lesson in content-context we'll ever be treated to on mainstream TV. What, exactly, were we experiencing? A kinetic sculpture? A song? A rock concert? Poetry? A TV show? A crude singer? All those things, but also none of them. We experienced Bob Dylan placing just one more misshapen stone in a meandering, invisible mortarless stone wall. A wall of his own random design that, by now, stretches across a continent. It protects the fields it surrounds. It has kept out all manner of monsters that have devoured all other formerly innocent entertainments.
I've seen Jon Faurot, a some-time housepainter, standing in the corner at a local restaurant, strumming his guitar and singing in a breathy head-voice his brilliantly delicate take on dozens of hoary old rock songs. He's very good, and only because it's been part of my life-work, I can put down my fork and listen and appreciate the song anew. But the diners take the man in the corner singing "Day in the Life" at face value. It is background music because it is meant to be background music. They do not put down their forks, or even stop talking for a minute, and listen.
But take Mr. Faurot's same performance, put him solo on stage, place a spotlight on him, give him 300 paying, like-minded, reverently attentive audience members, let him play "One More Cup of Coffee", and you have 300 cases of goosebumps and that sudden, dynamic roar of appreciation at the end of a delicate song.
Because Dylan never allowed us to hear his voice, creating some of the most broken, twisted vocal sounds - sometimes very graceless and amateur vocal sounds - because he would not let us pin down what he sings like, we can now hear almost anybody, from supermarket check-girl to junior high school student, intone one of his compositions and bring it as much revelation as Dylan ever did. But intrinsic to this is the stage, the dress-up, the spotlight. It would be a mistake to equate the importance of this framing context to famous musicians wearing funny glasses at the rock and roll hall of fame TV show. No, it's not the flash. It is the reverence.
There were many sublime moments at the Bob-Fest. Among the assembled community, players and audience, the hall that contains them, and out to the street, and across the globe, there was a unifying field. That field is surrounded and protected by that invisible hand-made stone wall, the one Dylan himself, completely alone, has fashioned over these 50 years. Somewhere in that field, defined by the wall, is the art-form.
It is available to all of us. It is truly a folk-art, and though Bob Dylan is well-known as one difficult and crusty character, all along, he was making us this gift, this field, a unity every town and city can and should invoke.
Written by Bill Botrell
Bill is a Grammy Award-Winning Songwriter/Producer and has worked for (and with) Cheryl Crow, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Shelby Lynn, Jefferson Starship, ELO and many others; we are honored to have Bill join us as a BobFest Musician and Vocalist.