Bob Dylan is an iconic figure in popular music, occupying a space all his own that extends into the hearts of Centre County’s musicians and music lovers.
There’s no denying his influence. What about the Beatles? What about Bob Marley? What about Townes Van Zant? What about the hundreds of incredible songwriters the 20th century churned out starting in the mid-1960s?
They all emerged in Dylan’s wake, even the Beatles, which, after listening to “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” proceeded to write and record “Beatles for Sale,” a Lennon-drenched literary departure from the band’s earlier pop jingles that led to the later, more mature Beatles accomplishments.
Yes, Dylan changed everything, which is why it’s so appropriate that Saturday’s “Shelter from the Storm” benefit concert for Strawberry Fields at The State Theatre will feature Dylan’s catalog. In the mid-’60s pinnacle of his creative powers, Dylan’s magic was his ability to represent cultural B-sides in a way that both engaged and challenged the matrix. This weekend’s event is all about raising money for cultural B-sides, people who are not always in the forefront, people we often won’t admit exist — those with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.
It’s bold going all Dylan all night, because some people just don’t get it. They reduce him to a nasally sideshow and pass him over for music that looks and feels more like the pop culture box they are used to. Even today, after more than 50 years of music making and changing the essence of popular music, Dylan is positioned in a back alley, a boxcar, a basement or some other place than even a heady State Theater gig, or the Super Bowl halftime show.
If he wanted pop stardom the way the Beatles had it, or the way Bruno Mars has it, he should have skipped his most explosive, most etheric songs like “Tombstone Blues,” “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Chimes of Freedom,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna’ Fall,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and generally anything from his second to his seventh album.
Yes, it’s bold, but it’s also the highest respect a music community can give a local nonprofit, outside of playing a night of original music. It’s as if to say, “Listen, Strawberry Fields, we believe in you so much we’re going all Dylan, all night and it’s going to be awesome,” which it is.
When I first got into Bob Dylan, I was 13, and after mowing my grandfather’s lawn one day he took me to a music store at the Park City Mall in Lancaster. There, I browsed CDs until I saw “Bob Dylan at Budokan,” a Vegas-like live album from the late ’70s that featured Dylan hamming up his greatest hits. Even with that feel to the album, I was blown away, and I went back to the store each week to get another CD with the money I made mowing my grandfather’s lawn.
After two summers, I had a lot of Dylan CDs. I started playing the guitar, and was performing two sets of Dylan music at a local coffeehouse in Lancaster, along with an original song or two. It was a full Dylan-immersion course of my own design, and it changed everything about how I viewed popular music, and, more importantly, myself.
As the “Shelter from the Storm” event approaches, it’s a good time to reflect on Dylan — more a cultural phenomenon than a musician — and to clearly see how well-represented he is on our scene. You’ll hear him Wednesday nights at Otto’s Pub & Brewery as Paul Brigman rambles through “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” You’ll hear Eric Ian Farmer singing “The Man in Me” at his weekly gigs. You’ll hear Larry Boggess singing and playing some Dylan country-music like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” here and there. I even heard a Dylan mash-up from Chris Rattie and his crew at Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks a few years ago.
He’s everywhere, and he’s awesome.
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.