Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007

It ain’t him, babe

Local musicians bring it all home with a tribute to Bob Dylan in the Music Center at Strathmore

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
In the jingle jangle morning: Guitarist Bill Craig plays a few notes at a rehearsal onstage at Strathmore. Nearly 60 musicians will pay tribute to Bob Dylan next Wednesday evening.
How does it feel?

That’s the question, isn’t it, when the summer tribute concert at Strathmore — an annual return of homegrown musicians, en masse, to their Montgomery County stomping grounds — moves from the lawn to the inside of the Music Center to celebrate the freewheeling Bob Dylan.

‘‘I’ll throw that right back at ya,” says Ronnie Newmyer, 53, the concert’s affable organizer. ‘‘It feels like ‘dancing beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free’ — with 50 of your best friends onstage and a couple thousand new ones in the audience!”

Whether or not you recognize the quote from Dylan’s ‘‘Tambourine Man,” the fact remains that Newmyer and his music-making buddies — including but not limited to Bill Kirchen, The Nighthawks with Tom Principato, Tommy Lepson & Bill Holland, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, The Grandsons, Patty Reese, Laura Burhenn, Luke Brindley, Jon Carroll, John Jennings, Mike Cotter, The Hanson Brothers, The Cravin’ Dogs, Eric Brace, Bill Starks and Tom Miller — will take over the Strathmore stage a week from today.

‘‘We’re honored to put on a show at such a great venue as Strathmore,” Newmyer says. ‘‘Coordinating schedules is like a giant Rubik’s Cube of people, but everything’s going great.

‘‘I’m so thrilled and proud that a bunch of D.C. musicians can fill this auditorium, pull this crowd.”

The crowd’s the thing: Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore’s CEO, explains the move from a practical point of view: ‘‘It’s simple,” he says. ‘‘Our grass wasn’t big enough to handle the crowd.”


In the beginning, there was Nils Lofgren. The first tribute concert at Strathmore took place in August 2004, with a Who’s Who of the D.C. rock scene giving props to the Bethesda native — a pioneer with Neil Young, a staple of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, leader of the band Grin and a solo artist in his own right. It was one of those memorable rock ’n’ roll nights, with thousands in the audience and an appearance by the man himself. Every August since, Strathmore and Lofgren’s pal, Newmyer, have put together tributes to honor their musical heroes. This year, it’s Bob Dylan’s turn.

‘‘We won’t have Dylan there,” says Pfanstiehl, ‘‘but if he’s not channeled by all these great musicians, I don’t know where he’ll be!”

Not outside: For this summer’s ‘‘softer, gentler” outdoor concert series, Pfanstiehl says, ‘‘we turned it down, went acoustic, and haven’t had a single complaint.” The free admission is gone, too — but a $7 ticket, which includes parking in the Metro garage, is a bargain for a show on the Strathmore stage.

‘‘It’s such a beautiful hall,” says Billy Coulter, 46, a musician from Takoma Park. ‘‘It’s a great honor to perform here — and this ought to expose this venue to people, give them a reason to come to this hall.”

Last year, Coulter put together a tribute to Dylan at the Institute of Musical Traditions, although he admits the Man from Minnesota is an acquired taste.

‘‘I wasn’t a big Dylan fan as a kid,” says Coulter. ‘‘One of the first songwriters I was heavily influenced by was Ian Hunter (of Mott the Hoople).”

Still, Coulter has come to appreciate the songwriter whose lyrics ‘‘are head and shoulders above what’s written today.

‘‘Just looking over the lyrics, they’re so poignant — as relevant now as they were in the ’60s.”

The meaning of words like ‘‘liberation” and freedom” has been skewed, he observes; going back to Dylan’s songs is a way to reclaim those words.

‘‘There are plenty of songs Bob’s written that are insightful to the human condition,” says Coulter. ‘‘He’s almost the Shakespeare of pop music — if I can go that far — in the same way that Shakespeare was able to cut to the heart.”

The nerve

Call him the Bard of Hibbing, then: Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minn., and raised in nearby Hibbing. At the University of Minnesota — he matriculated in 1959 — the self-taught guitarist and piano player started performing as Bob Dylan. A singer-poet-songwriter-musician-deejay-screenwriter-actor-icon, he moved to New York in 1961 and proceeded to change the face of popular music — again, and again and again.

‘‘I think there’s something in what Dylan does that touches a nerve in people,” says Bill Holland, who’s making his fourth tribute appearance next week. ‘‘I still think it’s undefined — I can’t figure it out for the life of me — but he created a new form of pop music.”

For Holland, Dylan satisfies the human need to hear about broken dreams, hollow victories and sad stories, told with almost surreal imagery and embellished with romanticism and heroics.

‘‘He would scoff at anyone calling him a prophet,” says Holland, ‘‘but he’s like a Sufi poet.”

Holland — performing with Tommy Lofgren (brother of Nils and a celebrated local musician in his own right) — has chosen ‘‘When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a song he describes as ‘‘kind of gospelly.

‘‘People seem to confuse words and music when it comes to Dylan,” he notes. ‘‘In a certain way, Dylan is an elementary musician.”

Still, he is one who was clearly in the right place at the right time.

‘‘I heard him on one of his first acoustic albums,” says Holland. ‘‘He was on to something, I knew — but when he went electric!”

Just like a woman

‘‘My parents were [into] Lawrence Welk and HeeHaw,” laughs Patty Reese. ‘‘My mom loved Englebert Humperdinck — until he cheated on his wife; then all the albums went out and she moved on to Kenny Rogers.”

Growing up in Silver Spring, Reese was turned on to Dylan by a neighbor.

‘‘I was showing him how to play guitar,” she says, ‘‘and he taught me how to appreciate Dylan, to listen to the lyrics and what they are saying.

At first, she admits, ‘‘I was like, ‘This guy can’t sing!’” But Reese, a singer-songwriter who lives in Takoma Park and plays, by her own estimation, about 20 nights a month, says she’s come to admire Dylan’s poetic oeuvre, if not his gravelly vocals.

‘‘As a singer, it’s amazing to have something to say, to sing something that has such meaning, it’s timeless,” she observes.

And as a Montgomery County musician, born and bred, she considers this — her first tribute concert at Strathmore —an opportunity to catch up with musicians she has known forever as well as those she has not yet met.

‘‘Everyone assumes you all know each other,” she says. ‘‘But if you’re a working musician, that’s the greatest part of it: getting to meet people, see people and play with these great musicians.”

Old friends

The opportunity has become so popular that shaving the roster of performers down to less than 60 was a Herculean task.

‘‘The first year, we were just trying to get somebody to come and play,” says Dan Schwartz, a musician who works for Bandhouse Gigs, the new production company that grew out of these ever-more-successful tribute concerts. ‘‘We’ve gotten better at setting it up.”

Schwartz, 23, is a Bethesda native; he came up through the ranks of the East Coast Jazz Festival and studied with Ron Kearns at Walter Johnson High School before graduating from college and coming back to be a D.C.-area musician — like his dad, Jeff.

‘‘I’ve known all these guys since I was an infant,” he says, grinning.

And yet a lot of the performers go back as long or longer.

‘‘I’ve known Ronnie for almost 30 years now,” says John Jennings. ‘‘But I’ve never done a tribute before — I’m tickled.”

Jennings, 53, is a full-time professional musician who tours with Mary Chapin Carpenter.

‘‘Like many people, the first time I heard Bob Dylan was on the radio, doing ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’” he recalls.

The Potomac resident says that, at the time, he was a fan of mostly English rock bands: the Beatles, the Kinks, the Yardbirds and King Crimson.

‘‘Bob Dylan was the first American artist I paid attention to,” he says. ‘‘The first record of his I had was ‘Blonde on Blonde,’ which was pretty heavy lifting for a Dylan record. It had weight.”

Not all Dylan’s efforts had the same weight. The fable of the elephant and the blind men has nothing on a bunch of musicians discussing the relative merits of some Dylan’s work. Holland dismisses ‘‘Nashville Skyline,” especially ‘‘Lay Lady Lay” and raves about ‘‘Blood on the Tracks,” particularly ‘‘Idiot Wind.”

Eric Brace, 47, the local musician who moved to Nashville with his band Last Train Home, says, ‘‘His songs were some of the first that entered my brain. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ [covered by] Peter, Paul and Mary. I’ve been following him ever since.

‘‘I’ve seen him 10 times. I steal his ideas whenever I can!”

Brace rejects Holland’s rejection of ‘‘Nashville Skyline,” because: ‘‘the intersection of rock and country is where I live.”

And so it goes: Acoustic Dylan! Electric Dylan! Folk Dylan! Modern-day Dylan!

Newmyer marvels at ‘‘the impact he’s had on people’s lives.

‘‘We always like to choose someone who’s had a wide body of work,” he explains, ‘‘and he has songs that run across the musical spectrum.”

The kind of songs, Newmyer adds, that make great tribute concerts because they appeal to a wide audience, showcase great musicianship and adapt beautifully to an acoustically sensitive venue.

‘‘It’s art” says John Jennings. ‘‘Not ‘nose-in-the-air,’ it’s just a work of art. Bob Dylan is an icon, someone we’ll be talking about a hundred years from now.”

A Tribute to Bob Dylan begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 22, in The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. (‘‘Party on the Patio,” with live performances in tribute to Dylan, starts at 5:30 p.m.) Tickets are $7 and include parking in the garage at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro. Bob Dylan is not expected to perform at this concert. Call 301-581-5100 or visit