Originally Published: May 19, 2011 12:29 p.m.
No town throws a Bob Dylan birthday party like Cottonwood.
The timeless singer turns an even 70 on May 24, but his birthday every year isn't quite official until a group of high-desert musicians and self-described "Dylanophiles" celebrate in their own way. Joe Neri is in his sixth year producing the annual birthday tribute show, which this year falls on Saturday night at the historic Old Town Center in Cottonwood. Neri also plays guitar and sings lead vocal on most songs. And May 24 happens to be his birthday as well.
"It's about having a whole bunch of fun. I found a neat way to get people to come to my birthday party without being famous," Neri said on Tuesday, from the Well Red Coyote Bookstore he and his wife own in Sedona.
Dylan - seven years older than Neri - is 70 but has no signs of rust. His "Never Ending Tour" tour featured 17 gigs last month from the Far East to New Zealand, including his first-ever concert in China. Back in the U.S., the Associated Press reported that record sales in March showed a young audience - in some cases teenagers - seeking Dylan out, even on vinyl. "Savvy young people," AP reported, "with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Iron Maiden and a host of obscure post-punk music on their minds."
The stage this Saturday night in Cottonwood will buzz with Neri and his backing band for the Dylan show, the Mystery Tramps (see: "Like A Rolling Stone"), joined by a host of northern Arizona musicians: Alexander, Tyler Barrett, Decker, William Eaton, Dan Engler, Gregg Gould, Vyktoria Pratt Keating, Chris Seymour and Don Whitcher, and poet Gary Every. The Mystery Tramps are Neri on vocals and guitar, Debra Windsong on harmonica, Dan Bresnan on lead guitar, Alexander on keyboard, Hutch Hutchinson on bass and Robert Church on drums.
The annual birthday concert has grown from a couple dozen friends playing Dylan tunes every May in Neri's bookstore to a full-on ticketed event and musical production. Its current home is the Old Town Center for the Arts' theater at 5th and Main in Cottonwood, complete with nearby Sycamore Canyon and Tuzigoot, and jagged mountains everywhere.
Planning for this year's event started in January, and 15 musicians are scheduled to play two sets. Some play solo, and the band combinations are always changing throughout, like Dylan's songbook itself. "Northern Arizona/Prescott ..." Neri said. "The talent pool is enormous here. The musicianship is just phenomenal."
WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION ALONE: Tradition at the Bob Dylan Birthday Party Concert calls for a special rendition of "Desolation Row" - Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album closer from 1965 - that invites individual members of the audience on stage to take turns singing one of the epic track's 10 verses.
AZ EDGE INTERVIEW: Joe Neri
Do you take requests?
No we don't. It's become a pretty intense production. It runs about three hours with about a 20-minute break in the middle. So we really don't have time, and quite frankly we've never gotten one. People don't shout out 'hey do this'. We give them a real great range of songs from old, middle and recent Dylan.
How about a rocking, electric version of "When the Ship Comes In"?
(laughs) Okay. Well, I'll tell you what, hold me to it next year.
When not birthday bashing Bob, you also front Blues Dawg - a four-piece contemporary blues band based in Sedona. Which Dylan songs are his bluesy best?
He's done a lot of 'em. And Dylan has this history of kind of stealing old blues men's music and not giving them credit for it. He's done a lot of that. But I think my favorite - and I'll be doing it this year, I don't do it every year - my favorite blues-structure song he's written which is hysterical is "Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat." It's about a woman wearing a leopard-skin pill box hat and how great it is.
What's the hardest Dylan song to play (or especially sing!)?
There's a lot of hard ones .... The hard part about a lot of Dylan songs is the rhythm structure. I'll give you an example. We're gonna kick off the show with probably the hardest one I've had to learn, a song from one of his newer albums called "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum." It's just a two-chord song, so just playing it is not a big deal. But in most music everything is in multiples of four in some way, and he has a verse of like eight bars and then he has a chorus of repeating three bars. Hard to describe, but you sing over one of these bars but then you just lay back for two more. Just getting out of that multiple-of-four pattern that Western music is based on and having to go to three, really requires a lot of concentration. So I'm still rehearsing that damn song.
Do you prefer Jimi's or Bob's version of "All Along The Watchtower"?
(laughs) You can't beat Jimi. I did the Hendrix version of "All Along The Watchtower" last year. That's how we opened the show.
With a Dylan catalogue of almost 500 songs from 34 studio albums, how do you go about picking the set list for Saturday night?
The basic structure of the show is that me and the band will do the first two songs. I always like to have something of a rocking sound to open the show. I don't want to start with "Buckets of Rain" or "Masters of War." We always try to do something very up-tempo and rock sounding. And I have a couple of favorites. I love "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," so I'll usually try to fit that in. "Desolation Row" is always in. And then we always end with "Blowin In The Wind" and "Like a Rolling Stone." So of the 20-some songs we're going to do in the course of the night, maybe 20 percent are already accounted for from year to year. That still gives us a lot of leeway, but I throw it out to the participating musicians.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of "Blowin In The Wind." What lessons have we learned in all those songs since?
That's the sad part. I actually tear up sometimes when I introduce the song. "Blowin In The Wind" was like an anthem to humanity; saying to start paying attention and getting real about solving some of these problems. Everything he alludes to in that song is still a problem today. In some cases I think a worse problem than it was in 1962.
Bob is always on his "Never Ending Tour" tour, which literally never ends. Is that every musician's dream or nightmare?
Musicians like Dylan and B.B. King and Buddy Guy - these guys just live on the road. They may have homes somewhere but their life is being out there on stage. Other people need breaks. I think every musician would like to be in demand that much, but I'm not sure everyone could withstand the rigors of that kind of life for very long.