Imagine organizing and staging a performance tribute to a vanguard artist only to find out the performer you’re honoring will be playing in the region the very night of your soiree.
That will be the scenario on Friday as a Lexington-based, multi-act tribute concert to Bob Dylan finds itself going head-to-head with the mighty Dylan himself, who will perform at Northern Kentucky University.
The two events aren’t in competition with each other. The local Dylan gathering at First Presbyterian Church is the product of the same local organizers as tribute concerts to Leonard Cohen (in 2017) and Joni Mitchell (in 2018). It is technically sold-out, as were the Cohen and Mitchell shows, although tickets were distributed free of charge.
As much as we would like to think differently, it’s unlikely Dylan or his production crew are even aware as he heads to Highland Heights on Friday of the salute Lexington will be giving him that evening.
“We already had this on the books and had announced it before Dylan’s tour schedule was announced,” said Marlon Hurst, director of music and arts at First Presbyterian. “It’s unfortunate that it’s the same night because I know there will be people with a divided sense of which event to go to. If we weren’t doing this, I probably would be up there in the audience at NKU.”
The Dylan tribute is part of First Presbyterian Church’s ongoing Music for Mission series, which presents concerts that seek donations for local and regional mission organizations in lieu of ticket sales. The performance will benefit Greenhouse 17, a shelter organization that aids victims of intimate partner abuse.
As with the previous tribute concerts, submissions were sought from local artists offering their interpretation of works from nearly six decades of Dylan songs. What was the most popular tune to be covered? The answer might surprise you. “We had a huge variety of submissions,” Hurst said. “Interestingly enough, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ (a solo acoustic breakup tune from 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album) was submitted eight times. But we received submissions of songs from Dylan’s entire catalog from the early days to that productive period in the 1970s to his most recent renaissance beginning with ‘Time Out of Mind’ (in 1997).
“A project like this is a lot of work, but it’s a lot fun. You see artists making connections between artists. They’re really very supportive of one another. People have built friendships as a result of these concerts. Plus artists have expressed to us how much they appreciate being able to perform in a venue that’s really like a listening room. People are there solely for the purpose of hearing the music. They’re not competing with background noise or bar crowds.”
General admission seating for the tribute concert will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. Those without tickets will be allowed to fill any unclaimed seats after 7:15.
“This year we have artists that have performed at both of the previous tribute concerts, some who only performed last year and then some who are making their debuts,” Hurst said. “You’ll see some new faces in the lineup this year as well as some familiar ones.”
Of course, no face to a Dylan enthusiast is more familiar than the one belonging to Dylan himself, mercurial as his profile may be. He doesn’t allow photographers, professional or amateur, at his concerts and often performs under minimally stark lighting conditions. A slave to the spotlight Dylan is not. But such restrictions only seem to add to the Dylan mystique.
His concerts have also long been notorious for scrapping familiar song arrangements in favor of contorted revisions full of startling immediacy.
At a sold-out performance a year ago this month at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond, Dylan provided major musical facelifts to some his most cherished material. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” became a coarsely designed crooner, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” was presented as a dizzying meditation and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was delivered as an encore lullaby.
“The river Mr. Dylan tapped was deep and wide,” wrote the New York Times in a 2016 editorial published after the songwriter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “encompassing folk, blues, gospel, ‘hillbilly’ music and the stew of rock ’n’ roll, to which he added his own strange, inexplicable Dylan thing.”
Dylan hasn’t release an album of new songs since 2011’s “Tempest” (whose highlight tunes “Pay in Blood” and “Early Roman Kings” have become as familiar in his current concert repertoire as such decades-old classics as “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Simple Twist of Fate”). But his recorded output has been more bounteous than ever.
Since “Tempest,” Dylan has issued three albums (one of them a triple-disc set) of newly cut covers of standards by Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and Rodgers and Hammerstein, among others, that stand as some of the most perplexing projects in Dylan’s 57-year recording career.
But there has also been an immense wealth of archival music from eras of Dylan’s career that sound like the work of a dozen different artists.
In 2017, we had the six-disc “Trouble No More,” a concert chronicle of spiritually slanted fare from Dylan’s late ‘70s “born again” period. On its heels was 2018’s “More Blood, More Tracks,” a six-disc excavation of divorce-themed studio sessions that resulted in one Dylan’s most heralded albums, 1974’s “Blood on the Tracks.” In June, we had “The Rolling Thunder Revue,” a whopping 15-disc compilation of Dylan’s gypsy caravan-style tour recordings from late 1975. Then as recently as last week, we received “Travelin’ Through,” a comparatively modest three-disc overview of unreleased music from the late 1960s.
“Travelin’ Through” examines a period of great stylistic rediscovery for Dylan. The first disc offers outtakes from two vividly different albums – 1968’s “John Wesley Harding,” a record that renews Dylan’s devotion to socially conscious folk music, and 1969’s “Nashville Skyline,” a far more light-hearted crop of love songs with a pronounced country feel. The second disc brings us the first official release of sessions between Dylan and Johnny Cash where the artists take stabs at country standards as well as each other’s songs. While the informal and often-impromptu performances have been bootlegged for decades, hearing them together with a pristine studio mix is a major thrill. The third disc finishes the Cash collaboration before winding up with rehearsal-level recordings cut with banjoist and bluegrass forefather Earl Scruggs.
Leave it to the cordial, soft-spoken and always unassuming Scruggs to have the last word on “Travelin’ Through.” When asked by an interviewer prior to the sessions if he was at all nervous about playing with Dylan, the banjoist replied with good natured brevity.
Bob Dylan Tribute Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8
Where: First Presbyterian Church, 171 Market St.
Tickets: Free, but sold Out. 859-252-1919. eventbrite.com. General admission will begin at 6:30 p.m. Those without tickets will be allowed to fill any unclaimed seats after 7:15.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 8
Where: BB&T Arena, 500 Louie B. Nunn Dr. at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights.