There’s a secret to understanding the eclectic, artistic and visionary mind of Bob Dylan.
Just when you thought you’d heard it all from Dylan, along comes something that makes you scratch your head and realize the real key to understanding one of the most eclectic and enigmatic musical artists of the 20th and 21st centuries is this: Don’t be surprised by anything he does.
That’s just one of Jeff Schwachter’s takeaways after studying and playing Dylan’s music for decades.
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“He’s a chameleon,” says Schwachter, an accomplished musician, artist and journalist. “(Playing) Dylan isn’t just doing one aspect of his career, because he has so many different voices and so many different types of (musical) journeys that impact his music and his performance and his songs.”
Three years ago, Schwachter created and performed during “Dylan Fest AC,” Atlantic City’s first Bob Dylan tribute. The evening featured a wine tasting and a Dylan-inspired art show followed by performances by local musicians who are Dylan acolytes.
In a town that plays a lot of cover and tribute bands, it’s rare — almost impossible — to find an act that can sustain an entire Dylan tribute program, Schwachter says.
Covering Dylan isn’t easy
“There really aren’t a lot of good Bob Dylan tribute bands out there,” he says candidly. “Even in Atlantic City and throughout the country, where you have all these tribute bands, they’ll have a Journey cover or an Eddie Money cover band before they have a Bob Dylan cover band. There really aren’t that many out there who can do it well.”
Schwachter said the third Dylan Fest AC, presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, at Dante Hall, will build on the original theme he developed in 2015.
The idea actually began percolating long before Dylan Fest was created, he explained.
“I had been anticipating the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan hooking up with The Band in Somers Point in 1965,” he explains. “Not a lot of people in the world know that the roots of Bob Dylan and The Band’s relationship, which had a very big effect on modern music, started in South Jersey in the summer of 1965.”
Dylan had already gained notoriety at the time as a folksy, guitar-strumming singer and songwriter. But he decided to switch from acoustic to electric guitar, and that meant he needed a band to play behind him.
Levon & The Hawks (& Dylan)
The group Levon and the Hawks, led by the late Levon Helm, was the house band in the summer of ‘65 at Tony Mart’s, the legendary and long-gone Bay Avenue nightclub in Somers Point. Dylan met with Helm, who played drums, bass player Rick Danko, guitarist Robbie Robertson and the other members of the Hawks, who agreed to back up Dylan during his 1965 American tour and the following year when he played Europe.
Because he likes to add a little “extra” to Dylan Fest, Schwachter’s band, The 5 Believers, will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Gary Solomon, a member of The THE BAND Band.
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No, that’s not a typo. It’s the name of a group that could be the world’s only tribute band to The Band. Solomon will join The 5 Believers on some Dylan numbers and also some songs that were played by The Band.
The 5 Believers will also perform Dylan’s 1983 album “Infidels” in its entirety. Many music experts consider it Dylan’s “comeback” album after turning out a series of gospel-inspired LPs in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Dylan Fest AC will open with the local duo Watson & Shocket. Schwachter says Meredith Watson and Lou Schocket will perform three or four songs before turning the stage over to the ensemble called Just Like the Women.
That group’s name is a play on the 1966 Dylan hit “Just Like a Woman” and features Cape May County-based singers C. Lynne Smith, Marnie Bevan-Lengle and Bernadette Matthews. Bass player Marlene Babbert and guitarist Schwachter will supply the musical backup.
Expect the unexpected
Because he’s studied and been influenced by Dylan for as long as he’s been a musician, he’s never surprised when the 76-year-old legend does something surprising. Or, for that matter, when something surprising happens to Dylan, as it did in 2016 when he became the first musician ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Nobel committee noted Dylan received the award because he “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
And who wasn’t surprised in 2015 when Dylan released the album “Shadows in the Night,” a tribute to another music legend, the late Frank Sinatra? It turned out Dylan was a fan of the singer known as Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“It was definitely a different slant, for sure,” Schwachter says. “But remember, Dylan is now a grandfather and (Sinatra) is the music he remembers from when he was a little kid.”
Sinatra was apparently a Dylan fan, too. During a 1995 television special celebrating Sinatra’s 80th birthday, the birthday boy asked him to perform “Restless Farewell” from Dylan’s 1964 album “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
Sinatra enjoyed the fairly obscure tune, Schwachter said, and the two singers maintained “a close connection” until Sinatra’s death in 1998.