Highway 61 Revisited: B.B. King Blues Bar, New York, NY 5/25/09

“You might play a mean guitar, you might play the fiddle,
you might stand on either side, you might be in the middle,
but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

On May 25, director and Dylan devotee Joel Gilbert brought his Highway 61 Revisited band to B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill, to help celebrate Bob Dylan’s 68th birthday. Gilbert is the auteur behind a series of in-depth, well-received Dylan docs like Bob Dylan 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years, and his latest film, Bob Dylan Never Ending Tour Diaries: Drummer Winston Watson’s Incredible Journey. Rounding out the band was Watson himself, Dylan’s skins man from the MTV Unplugged album, and Desire and Rolling Thunder tour alumni Rob Stoner and Scarlet Rivera, on bass and violin. Gilbert assumed the role of Bob Dylan, leading his band through 25 songs, without the aid of a lyric sheet or teleprompter.

The 7-piece band (which includes a keyboard player, lead guitarist, and female backup singer) open their set with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” an appropriate choice for a cover band. Scarlet Rivera joins in and takes a solo, as she would on most of the songs that night, a rare and unexpected highlight. Concurrently, I am waiting for my waitress to serve somebody: I’m thirsty! I hate B.B. Kings, a tourist trap inside a tourist trap, where they make you buy overpriced, crappy drinks that they then take hours to bring to you. I get my beer some six songs later, during “One More Cup of Coffee.” Mmmm, beer.

Next, they run down “I Want You,” with Stoner adding harmonies. “Rainy Day Women” is a big hit with the over 40 crowd in attendance, and everyone in the room. It’s as if hearing and appreciating this song is enough to make one feel like a little bit of a rebel.

A gray-haired gentlemen with a mustache and Hawaiian shirt sitting in the back dutifully (and vainly) shouts for “Visions of Johanna” in between songs. “I freakin’ love Dylan” I hear him explain to somebody, possibly nobody. “And this guy sings better than Dylan.” A table of German Dylan fans sits to my right, nodding approvingly. Highway 61 Revisted bill themselves as the world’s only Bob Dylan tribute band (technically not true, I plaid in one a few days prior); they do offer the only Bob Dylan show where you can understand all the words.

For “Just Like A Woman,” Gilbert switches to acoustic guitar as things kick into a higher gear. His voice and mannerisms becomes more Dylany, a trait will that increase as the night progresses. After an excellent reading of “One More Cup of Coffee,” which Stoner and Rivera helped shape in 1975, they slam into the story of the “Hurricane.” I’m pretty sure they skipped a verse about criminals being free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise, but hey, it’s a long song, and Gilbert has a great memory (this is the man who knows all the words to “Every Grain of Sand”). I would have skipped a lot more than that by that point.

He introduces “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” as a prophetic song that could have been about the Internet. Rivera takes an At Budokan-esque solo during the song, an album and tour that Stoner served as chief arranger for. These two are superstars in their own right, having left their tasteful licks all over Desire. Stoner smiles broadly through the whole concert — who knows what memories were rushing back to him up there, swirling around in his head?

Next, another long-ass song off Desire, “Joey.” Gilbert changes the “clam house” line to “Umberto’s clam house,” but no one breaks out in spontaneous applause (shoulda tried “B.B. Kings”). This band is best set up to play Desire songs, and Watson, who toured with Dylan for five years in the ’90s, proved a worthy addition, fitting the feel of that album like a glove. “Tombstone Blues” provides a jolt of electricity, and is followed with another Dylan curio — “Love Sick” with Scarlet Rivera on violin.

“Here’s where we take requests from the Shot of Love album,” jokes Gilbert, before launching into “Shot of Love.” That’s one of those Dylan albums few are familiar with, including myself. But their cover was solid and soulful. “Maggie’s Farm” was played Rolling Thunder style, with Stoner adding his trademark harmony line (check out Hard Rain), a nice treat.

Next they tackle “Ballad of A Thin Man.” Having seen bands cover this song a bunch recently, it occurs to me that maybe Dylan put the bridge a few verses early. Or at least for us mere mortals. The band always charges hard into the opening verses, and the singer puts all his soul into that famous bridge, and then there’s a surprise 32 verses left to sing. “Isis” is a fan favorite — I wonder how many times, if any, Watson got to play some of these songs during his years on the road with Dylan. Certainly he had to be able to bust them out on a moment’s notice, following some foreign arrangment he’d never heard before.

Following “Isis,” “Tangled Up in Blue” gets an airing, a virtual prerequisite. But they also play “Sara,” a personal favorite; it’s the cherry on top of the Desire sundae. It was at this point that a restless, college-aged dude next to me told his girlfriend, “They gotta play “Like a Rolling Stone soon! I’m waiting for all the good ones.” Hmm. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor (Paul Simon said that).

“Any requests?” asks Gilbert, and is met with cries of “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat!” “Girl From the North Country!” “Tambourine Man!” “Times They Are -A Changin’!” and “Masters of War” (future Dylan cover bands, take note). After “Like a Rolling Stone,” Gilbert invites A.J. Weberman, the infamous Dylanologist who once got into a brawl with Dylan, to the stage. An elderly man in liberal New Yorker clothing, he seemed kindly and respectful enough. He broke down a verse of “Gates of Eden,” arguing that Dylan was always a patriot. According to Weberman’s interpretation, the Gates of Eden represent the United States, and the Bill of Rights is alluded to in the line “at times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true.” “We hope you live forever, Bob,” said A.J. tenderly from the stage; “keep writing what you’re writing.”

The band strikes up a fiery version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” complete with a lenghty bass solo. This may actually be the tune on which the band shines the brightest – they burn those three chords into the ground. The night comes to a close with another well thought-out number, “Forever Young,” a toast for Bob on his 68th birthday:

“May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung, and may you stay forever young.”


Set list:

1. Gotta Serve Somebody
2. I Want You
3. Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
4. Every Grain of Sand
5. Rainy Day Women #12-35
6. Just Like A Woman
7. One More Cup of Coffee
8. Hurricane
9. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
10. Joey
11. Tombstone Blues
12. Love Sick
13. Shot of Love
14. License to Kill
15. Maggie’s Farm
16. Ballad of A Thin Man
17. I Shall Be Released
18. Isis
19. Tangled Up in Blue
20. Sara
21. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
22. Everything Is Broken
23. Like A Rolling Stone
24. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
25. Forever Young