Duluth Dylan Fest 2022: Where 'Dylangate' is a good thing
The annual celebration of the Duluth-born Nobel laureate is taking place May 21-29.
DULUTH — "He's welding now," said Paul Metsa, "and there's nothing more Iron Range than that."
It's true. Dylan himself said it, in a 2013 statement: "I’ve been around iron all my life ever since I was a kid. I was born and raised in iron ore country — where you could breathe it and smell it every day."
The music legend's iron-working specialty is gates welded together from eclectic elements — most recently, he created a 16-foot piece for the entrance to Tulsa's new Bob Dylan Center — and this year's Duluth Dylan Fest is celebrating that side of his artistic life along with his music.
Fans are invited to bring pieces of steel (or other metal) to the Armory for Saturday's kickoff event; metalworkers from the Duluth makers group Forging Community will work the contributions into a gate to be sold at a charity auction during this year's festival, which runs through May 29.
"Bob Dylan has deep connections with the Northland," said Zane Bail, the festival's principal organizer. "We are just all about celebrating that, and then also lifting up our own really vibrant arts, music, culture here in Northeastern Minnesota."
Duluth Dylan celebrations have been happening in various forms for decades. Many have been pegged to the artist's May 24 birthday.
"Duluth has a long history of celebrating Bob Dylan," said Bail. "The Highway 61 (Revisited) radio show just celebrated its 30th anniversary on The North, formerly KUMD. There was a group of musicians called the Bob Dylan Revue that had an annual Bob Dylan birthday party in the 1990s."
Dylan's local history was institutionalized in 2006, when the city of Duluth designated a 1.8-mile cultural pathway in his honor. Bail was part of the group that raised funds for the Bob Dylan Way signage that went up a year later. She explained that the Duluth Dylan Fest dates back to 2011, when Brad Nelson suggested developing a week-long festival.
Nelson's brother, Tim, a musician and brewer, was also on the committee that developed the festival. "We were all just bootstrapping back then," said Tim Nelson, "(sharing) ideas of how to promote Duluth music."
Duluth Dylan Fest gained a wider group of participants in 2014, when Hibbing's Dylan Days folded following the closure of Zimmy's, a Hibbing restaurant and Dylan fan hub. Some of the Dylan Days activities, including a singer-songwriter competition, were adopted by the Duluth festival.
Laura Whitney and her husband, Pat Eliason, have been among the key organizers of the singer-songwriter contest since the days of Dylan Days. "It's not a Dylan imitation contest," stressed Whitney. "We've got wonderful singer-songwriters, and we want them to be their original selves, and have a good venue to sing and play their original music."
That venue is now Sacred Heart Music Center, where this year's contest will take place May 27. "There's somebody who is a contestant from Prague," said Whitney. "People do make pilgrimages to Duluth, and also to Hibbing, in order to learn more about Bob Dylan."
At the birthday party, said Bail, "we started doing a shout-out, like, 'Hey, who's from wherever?' One year there was, like, people from 11 different countries."
For the past year, Metsa, a well-established singer-songwriter who will both perform music and deliver a lecture at this year's festival, has resided in the lower floor of the Central Hillside house where Dylan lived upstairs during his early childhood in the 1940s.
"Part of my renter's duties is I have to man the guest book," said Metsa. "It's been a lot of fun, actually. I bet there's been 50 or 60 parties of people from Mexico, Norway, Sweden, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, you name it."
Every five-year interval since Dylan's 60th birthday has seen the release of a new volume of the "Duluth Does Dylan" tribute album series. The fifth volume, honoring Dylan's 80th in 2021, will be celebrated with a May 26 release show at the Earth Rider Festival Grounds. Superior can do Dylan, too — especially since Earth Rider founder Tim Nelson is the compilations' executive producer.
Nelson said he never imagined, when compiling the first "Duluth Does Dylan" album, that he'd still be at it two decades later — and, for that matter, so would Dylan be. Nelson remembered, "I was kind of like, 'Here's this old guy that's really famous and we can do some cover songs and we can put out a record.'"
The committee running the Dylan Fest today, said Nelson, comprises more seriously devoted Dylan fans — but he added that both the events and the albums still serve to celebrate local artists. No musical project can contribute to the Duluth Does Dylan series twice, said Nelson, though some individual performers have appeared multiple times in various capacities.
"Trampled By Turtles? You can only get one shot, sorry. You don't get to be on two. Dave Simonett?" Nelson laughed as he mentioned the name of Trampled By Turtles' frontman, who also works as a solo artist. "Yeah, you can do one, too. You can put a song on another one."
This year's compilation, titled "Free Wheelin' Duluth Does Dylan" in tribute to "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" (1963), features a woodcut cover illustration by Nick Wroblewski — a Duluth artist whose work may be most widely seen on cans of Earth Rider beer. The 15-track album, recorded at Sacred Heart, features contributors ranging from Northland veterans (Metsa, Rich Mattson) to top emerging talents (Lyla Abukhodair, whose cover of "The Times They Are A Changin'" closes the album).
When Dylan turns 81, it will mark the end of the Year of Dylan declared by St. Louis County to celebrate the landmark birth date. "We've just been kind of creative and helped (organize) events throughout the year," said Bail, citing an Ondara concert at Hibbing High as a particular highlight.
Duluth Dylan Fest went virtual in 2020 before returning to in-person events last year, but there will be some streaming options this year as well — including a May 25 lecture by Peter K. McKenzie, whose family housed Dylan in their New York apartment during the summer of 1961 as the musician was transitioning from the Midwest to the East Coast.
"We know some people still don't want to go out and about," said Bail. "It's just this tenuous time (for) in-person gatherings. We want people to be safe, and we're encouraging people to wear masks."
Metsa's lecture will be delivered in person, on May 28 at Wussow's Concert Cafe. "I'm going to read," he said, "from my book, and it's called 'Bob Dylan: Highway 53 Revisited,' which is my take on the Iron Range's influence on Bob Dylan — and conversely, Bob Dylan's influence on Paul Metsa."
Another book by Metsa, this one in collaboration with Rick Shefchik, is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press. Titled "Blood In the Tracks: The Life of Dylan's Masterpiece," according to Metsa, it's based on extensive interviews with the Minnesota musicians who played on "Blood On the Tracks" (1975). Half of the tracks on that album were recorded in Minneapolis, making it Dylan's only studio album to be substantially recorded in the state where he was born.
While visitors in Dylan's heyday were sometimes surprised the Northland didn't do more to honor its local hero, today's Dylan fans are making up for lost time — and their love for Dylan's music isn't contingent on his reciprocal attention.
"I don't know if Dylan needs to really become a spokesman for the city of Hibbing or Duluth," said Metsa. "I think his work speaks for itself. And I think the influences that he had growing up in a strong Jewish community in Duluth, and then a strong working class environment in Hibbing, I think, tells as much of a story as you need to know."
Bail noted that Hibbing now has a "beautiful" monument to the man the city knew as Bobby Zimmerman, and the annual festival continues to grow. "The Duluth Dylan Festival is like the State Fair of Dylan celebrations," she said. "You can quote me on that one."
For more information, including a complete schedule of this year's activities, see duluthdylanfest.com.