It’s just under a year now since Duluth’s favorite son Bob Dylan last rolled through town. His concert at Bayfront Festival Park last July was one for the ages, and surely one of the last times the soon-to-be-73-year-old Dylan will grace a stage in the city where he was born, given his sporadic appearances in the area. (Prior to last summer, his most recent Duluth concert date was in 1999.)
Saturday night’s tribute concert — “A Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan” — was a fine stand-in for the real deal, though, and at times even surpassed the quality of the current Dylan stage show. The three-hour-plus event, held at Sacred Heart Music Center, found a huge roster of artists local and otherwise (at least one of whom had actually played with Dylan) breathing life into the songwriter’s back catalog, with hits and obscurities getting equal attention. It was a fine way to kick off this year’s Duluth Dylan Fest, a weeklong celebration of the man and his Minnesota-informed music.
The epic length of the evening’s program means that we can’t get into what every artist brought to the table, but there were plenty of highlights.
A reggae version of the Dylan tentpole “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Barbara Meyer inspired lots of dancing in the aisles, a common sight throughout the night.
Paul Metsa tackled “She Belongs to Me,” one of Dylan’s many kiss-off songs to a former lover. His solo performance was nicely nuanced, and his deep, hoarse voice fit it well. Some of Metsa’s guitar soloing could’ve used a band underneath it, but his sans-net risk-taking warmed the crowd up successfully.
The familiar Bo Diddley rhythm of “Not Fade Away” got the crowd fired back up after a break; as the band kicked in, various members of the three-quarters-full audience kicked up their heels in the aisles.
On the band: While the night was filled with guest stars who cycled in and out of the front-person slots, the backing band was possibly the most noteworthy part of the evening. Anchored by guitarist/vocalist Billy Hallquist, guitarist extraordinaire Lonnie Knight and several others (including two percussionists), the group bobbed and weaved deftly through all the tunes, improvising where they could and providing support in just the right ways.
Knight was particularly impressive, his liquid soloing clean, fast and inspired. Easily, he could play in Dylan’s band and be much more interesting than the folks Dylan himself is currently carting around the globe. He added expression to the occasionally rote 1-4-5 song structures.
Bassist Gary Lopac also was on point, with his solid Hofner bass playing providing a firm foundation that everything was perched on, and Hallquist stole the show with some great singing on “Forever Young.”
But the steady stream of guest singers were the main focus, with vocalists such as Steve Grossman, Arne Fogel and Gene LaFond taking the mic in the latter half of the evening. They all acquitted themselves well, but when Scarlet Rivera took the stage, it became all about her violin.
The former Dylan band member played on several numbers, each inspiring standing ovations from the crowd. Her lyrical, expert lines were mixed loud and proud, as they should have been, and the audience was clearly working out their love for Dylan in the way they showered her with applause. If you can’t see Bob, they seemed to be saying, this is a pretty good substitute.
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.