The Backstory on L.A. Dylanfest with Andy Hill, Renee Safier & Hard Rain
It’s Springtime in Dylan Town
It’s early May and that time of year again here with Duluth Dylan Fest just around the corner. One of our Dylan-fan friends from out of town sent me a note about a Dylanfest she attended in L.A. this past weekend. As it turns out, that particular Dylanfest — produced by Andy Hill, Renee Safier and their backing band Hard Rain — has been running now for 29 years. In addition to near three decades of Dylanfest, they have performed in premiere venues internationally, received numerous awards, and produced 15 CDs plus 3 DVDs.
When I saw what their doing it affirmed something I have been saying for years. Dylan’s influence far exceeds the bounds of what is typical for a pop culture icon. This month his 78th birthday will be celebrated around the world, including here at our own weeklong Duluth Dylan Fest. Here are some insights from the West Coast regarding Dylan, music and life.
EN: 29 years is quite a run. How did you conceive that first Dylanfest? Who was involved and what did you do?
Andy Hill: In the liner notes of Bob Dylan’s 1985 5-album retrospective “Biograph,” Cameron Crowe related the story of a party in New York City where guests were invited to dress up as characters, things, interpretations and misinterpretations of Bob Dylan lyrics. In May of 1991 me and Renee and our band The Management expanded the concept by donning costumes and performing 4 hours of live Bob Dylan music to a packed house at the smoke-filled Hermosa Saloon.
Even at the first show, we had at least a couple of guests. A Dylan song is often musically very simple, and as such, acts like an empty vessel into which a singer or musician can pour his or her unique voice and musical expression. In a way, his are the most democratic of songs… in that players from across the musical spectrum of ability enjoy equal access.
In the ensuing years the event took on a life of its own, expanding first into a 10-hour potluck backyard house party. Attracting guest musicians, singers, bands and revelers from far and wide it eventually grew into the music festival it is today. This year, we had a singer fly in from Hawaii, another from Italy, and someone from Northern California, as well as all our local acts. We feature folk music, country, rock and roll, blues, gospel, Americana and more. What a listener won’t hear over the 8 hours of continuous music are any repeated songs. This year, we got through 64. And every year since 1991, someone has played at least one song that has never been performed at any previous Dylanfest.
EN: That’s pretty amazing.What prompted you to create an L.A. Dylanfest in 1990?
AH: Initially, I was just a big Bob Dylan fan. We had no intention of producing an annual event. It was the 3rd year, in 1994, when we became conscious that we had created something we could duplicate. It would be another 3 or 4 years before a light bulb went on and we thought, “You know, we could do this at a club or festival ground, and I bet people would buy tickets!”
Until around 1999, it was a backyard howler, replete with all the expenses, cleanup, occasional visits from the South Bay’s finest, etc. Dylan had turned 50 back in 1991, the year we first celebrated his contribution to what had become our livelihood. He was so OLD, but so COOL. Now, of course, we’re all older than he was then.
EN: When did you first connect with the music of Bob Dylan? What album would you say was your entry point?
AH: There are two huge moments that I recall vividly: It might have been December of 1975. I was fifteen years old and watching TV in my parents’ family room in Burnaby, British Columbia. Bob Dylan was singing with a small band that included a female violin player. I was unfamiliar with the song, but mesmerized by the performance.
The song was impossibly long, had no chorus, and was in a minor key. Dylan, seemingly unconscious of the cameras, spat out twelve verses, with no teleprompter and no notes. He sang about a boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was tried and convicted of a triple murder committed in 1966 in New Jersey. “Hurricane” was co-written by Jaques Levy and would be released later in 1976 and become one of Dylan’s classic protest songs. It would take until 1985 for Carter to be exonerated of the crime.
I was playing guitar by this time, and, looking back, I believe it was this performance that set in my teenage mind the idea that songwriting and performance were vastly improved if they were connected in some tangible way to the service of humanity at large. Dylan had absorbed the inclination from Woody Guthrie, and everyone in pop music after that picked it up from Dylan. Dylan had once said “you could listen to Woody Guthrie songs and actually learn how to live.” One could make the argument that Dylan wrote “Hurricane” because Woody wrote “1913 Massacre.” The protege had learned how to live.
The second incident was when I was in high school. In 1978–79 disco music was so pervasive that my friends and I began buying albums at random by artists we had only heard of because you had a better chance of hearing a good song that way than by checking the top 40.
I was 18, and I picked up something by Neil Young, and The Doors, and I bought the double album “Live at Budokan” by Bob Dylan. I had chanced upon the only Dylan album to date that included the printed lyrics to his songs. As a kid getting ready to enter college, I was stunned by the song “It’s Alright Ma.” It was longer than any song I’d ever seen and it seemed to contain the whole world. I read the lyrics and thought, “This is why this guy is so famous…” and simultaneously, (as an aspiring songwriter), “THIS is what you have to do??”
EN: Thanks, Andy. “It’s Alright, Ma” was my real immersion point, too. It connected with my inner personal struggle — the feeling of being out of sync with the culture I was living in — like nothing eve had before. Renee, when did you begin to get immersed in the music of Bob Dylan? Are there any songs or albums that especially speak to you?
Renee Safier: Andy was really the person who exposed me to the depth and breadth of the Bob Dylan catalog. I had heard the hits as a kid…Blowing In The Wind, Tambourine Man, All Along the Watchtower, and Like A Rolling Stone, and an acoustic trio I played with in college played Tangled Up In Blue, but as Andy and I built our performance songlist (now at 470 songs), he introduced me to more and more Bob Dylan. By the time we started doing Dylanfest, we played quite a few Dylan tunes, and that number has grown over the years. My love and respect for the material has deepened as well, and I am always moved and amazed at how deep and wide his music goes lyrically, melodically and poetically.
EN: Are you surprised that 29 years later your Dylanfest event is still growing? What were the highlights of this weekend?
AH: I’m not sure that “surprised” is the right word. Renee does the work of ten men in promoting this event. It is easy to say and believe, but I think it’s actually unfair, to characterize the event’s success as hinging entirely, or even mostly, on the quality of Bob Dylan’s catalog, as astonishing as that catalog is.
I’ve said for awhile now, that without Renee’s dedication, Dylanfest would be me playing acoustic guitar in my living room for our friends every May. And I would know an exhausting amount of his material. But anybody who’s produced an event knows that getting people to choose your event over everything else that’s available in a city like Los Angeles takes both a good idea, and a relentless dedication to the non-artistic elements entwined with public awareness.
For the 25th Dylanfest we engaged a group of super-fans to be volunteers. With the added muscle, and the additional set of skills they brought to the table, everything got bigger and better. We got a better sound system, a billboard, a program for the event; We had a team, instead of two or three of us, spreading the news by word of mouth, etc. We’ve had a lot of help along the way, and that’s why it’s still growing.
Of course our biggest team of volunteers are the singers, musicians and bands themselves. No guest sings more than 2 songs. But they come from far and wide to perform, because year after year there is a big, happy audience welcoming them back. It would be an oversight not to acknowledge that Dylanfest has a huge reunion component to it — that people who used to live here, choose this weekend to visit their old friends, etc. And people who live here know that all their friends will be in one place at one time.
In our 29th year the highlights for me were both big group things and small personal things. We assembled about 15 acoustic players, both professional and amateur, for a rousing sing-along rendition of Quinn, The Eskimo. Because the stage volume was low, we could really hear the audience sing along. It was joyous and big.
On the other end of the spectrum, I was playing rhythm guitar, standing maybe 3 or 4 feet from singer/guitarist Luis Oliart as he ripped his closing guitar solo to “Sweetheart Like You.” While he played, he kept eye-contact with me for what seemed like at least half the solo. The music that came from him, and the emotional generosity that poured forth during that solo I recognized almost immediately as both profound, and as a teachable moment.
Artistic expression is always more than notes on the page, fingers on the fretboard, or wind through the reed. I’m not sure how you would go about teaching it, but when you see and hear it up close, you feel it, and as a player, you want to create that yourself.
EN: I understand that completely. I see that you’ve produced quite a few albums.
(http://www.andyandrenee.com/albums.php) Which is your best-selling, and which is your personal favorite?
AH: We are about to release our 16th album. It will be called “Fuse32” and right now, it’s my favorite. We’ve worked very hard on it, and over the last 10 albums or so, our relationship with producer and friend Marty Rifkin has deepened, and we’ve come to a place in the studio where great things are possible.
Some of that is because we are better musicians. But both Renee and I are deferential in nature, socially, and that can sometimes be a strength in a collaborative setting. But often, it probably keeps you from doing your best work. Over time, with the building of trust, mutual respect, self-confidence, the willingness to try different things, abandon ideas that you were invested in, etc., you can put forth conflicting ideas and hammer out resolutions and know that the relationship outside of music can handle it.
I think our best-selling album is It Takes A Lot To Laugh, a collection of 14 Bob Dylan songs. Our best-selling album of original material is “The 14th of February”. (I think…Renee?)
Renee Safier: Yes, either “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” or “The 14th of February” (which has a Dylan song, “Senor ‘Tales Of Yankee Power’,” included in the tracklist). Many Miles To Go, a 2011 release, is also a strong seller. It’s hard to pick my favorite CD project…They all have different strengths, focuses and memories encapsulated in them. Just like a listener might associate a specific time in their life with a certain record, we have vivid memories from the actual recording sessions that can be triggered when we play a song from a CD or hear the track itself.
Duluth Dylan Fest 2019 is coming up fast, May 18–26, 2019. The weeklong festival will include an array of activities including more Dylan artifacts from the Bill Pagel Archives, an art show, music poetry, more music, a trivia night, lecture by Dylanologist David Gaines, author of In Dylan Town, the annual Singer-Songwriter Contest, and more.
Duluth Dylan Fest 2019 Schedule of Events
Joan Osbourne has been touring the country with a setlist of Dylan songs. The Kentucky-born performer will be at Sacred Heart on May 23. Tickets available here at Eventbrite.
May 17 Alan Sparhawk is contributing an evening of music on behalf of the Armory’s Music Resource Center program. It’s the evening before Duluth Dylan Fest officially kicks off. Consider it a tailgate party before the big week, for a good cause. Purchase tickets here for this:
AAMC MRC Spring Fundraiser.
If you see us, say hello!
Originally published at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.