Volume 20, Number 34 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Jan. 11 - 17, 2008

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Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

On Tues., Jan. 8 at The Bitter End, musicians competed for the chance to perform before the tribute concert to Bob Dylan’s 1966 Royal Albert Hall show this Saturday at the Winter Garden. Above, Karlus Trapp playing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Positively Vesey St.: Dylan’s spirit rises Downtown

The Royal Albert Hall Project
World Financial Center Winter Garden, Jan. 12, 8 p.m.
220 Vesey Street


It was at The Bitter End in the early ’60s that Bob Dylan supposedly made some of his earliest New York City appearances. The club has not changed too much in the intervening decades; the iconic brick wall behind the spacious stage is still the backdrop for a bevy of would-be rock stars. So it was apropos that the club played host to a contest fêting Dylan’s legacy this Tuesday, Jan. 8. Aspiring musicians and weekend warriors alike had one song to impress a small panel of judges and make it to the final competition at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden Jan. 11, before a star-studded tribute to Dylan on Saturday.

The material was chosen from Dylan’s storied 1966 “Royal Albert Hall Concert” — a bootleg actually recorded in Manchester, England during Dylan’s world tour, which made the tape-trading rounds until it was officially released in 1998. As was expected, the talent level was widely divergent. Twenty-seven-year-old Laura Brenneman, who played a rousing version of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” was one of a number of professional musicians competing. “It is great opportunity to perform,” she said, “and the ’66 album is a great catalogue of songs to choose from.” (Brenneman was chosen to compete in the semi-finals on Thursday). Howard Schwartz, on the other hand, was one of the many hobbyists who don’t often play in public. Said the 53-year-old New York cardiologist, who has been listening to Dylan for 40 years, “I enjoy playing music and I decided to come and have some fun.”

The Studio, a club for recreational musicians that helps book dates for corporate types looking to play out, produced the concert in conjunction with the New York Guitar Festival and Arts World Financial Center. The contest was the unofficial kickoff to the festival, which has its actual opening performance this Saturday, Jan. 12th at the Winter Garden. There, Dylan will be celebrated once more by musicians like Marshall Crenshaw, Kelly Joe Phelps, Laura Cantrell, Chocolate Genius, Lenny Kaye, Jesse Harris, and Toshi Reagon, as the all-star lineup officially commemorates Dylan’s Royal Albert Hall concert.

The 1966 Dylan show is significant for its two-set format; Dylan opened in his traditional acoustic format and then played the second half electric, backed up by what would become The Band. Dylan’s conversion to electric music was decried by folk purists who accused the singer-songwriter — including vocally during the performance — of selling out. Over 40 years later, Dylan’s iconic status is firmly cemented in both areas. But this tension is what made David Spelman, founder and organizer of the New York Guitar Festival, choose the album for musicians to recreate, as he has done in the past for previous records like Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” and the Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead.”

“We’re looking at the guitar’s role in the singer-songwriter world — the guitar can be both a lead solo instrumental instrument, whether it’s in the hands of Andrés Segovia or Wes Montgomery, or it can be also used as part of an ensemble or accompanying a singer-songwriter,” says Spelman. “Having said that though, I think that Bob Dylan is a really underrated guitarist. If you listen to what he’s done with the instrument, it’s deceptively simple and extraordinary if not flashy …even on his earlier records in the early ’60s, there’s a distinctive voice.”

The New York Guitar Festival, a biennial event, has been a New York staple since 1999 with a mission statement of “examining virtually every aspect of the guitar’s musical personality.” Spelman considers the tribute concerts a good way to begin the festival and continue a vital partnership with the World Financial Center.

“We just thought, why not start off the festival with a big free event? I had done these tributes before and we got great press and it just felt right; musically it was very satisfying.” When Spelman organized the homage to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album in 2006, Springsteen was in the audience and jammed on the finale. Jerry Garcia obviously could not attend last year’s Grateful Dead tribute, and while there is no official word of whether Dylan will be at the Winter Garden in the flesh this Saturday, he will certainly be there in spirit.

Lest one think that Spelman limits himself to popular pickers, the festival has been a showcase for genres as diverse as world, jazz, noise, and classical, and has boasted such luminaries as Bucky Pizzarelli, Vernon Reid, David Tronzo, and Jorma Kaukonen. When asked whether the guitar’s ubiquity is a booking challenge or obstacle, Spelman said, “It’s an interesting challenge because of how widely the guitar has been embraced, how popular it is all over the world. It is kind of a dream for a festival programmer because I don’t really have to think of it as a guitar festival — I think of it as a music festival. The goal is to show what the guitar is capable of.”

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