On April 23, 1963, a 21-year-old Bob Dylan graduated from West Village pubs and coffeehouses to perform in front of one thousand people at Town Hall. Read that setlist today, and it’s clearly a pivoting point for the young folk singer, tossing up the trainyard blues and Scottish folk songs he’d cut his teeth on with then-unknown originals like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Last night (May 24), on Dylan’s 77th birthday and roughly the 55th anniversary of the concert, an all-star lineup of actors, comedians and musicians got together with the Town Hall Ensemble and musical director/trumpeter Steven Bernstein to reimagine that night as Tomorrow is a Long Time: Songs From Bob Dylan’s 1963 Town Hall Concert.
But if you were looking for a fawning, breathless homage to the music icon, who is definitely still with us and puttering around the globe on tour, you’d best have applied elsewhere. At one point, the folk duo The Milk Carton Kids stepped up, acoustic guitars in hand, and asked if anyone in the audience had been at the original concert 55 years ago (they hadn’t) before poking at the very nature of the show. “When I heard there were a bunch of people getting together covering Dylan, I thought, well, that hasn’t been done,” quipped their Joey Ryan, dry as a bone. “I jumped at the opportunity. We’re going to play one of his deeper cuts.” (They played “Blowin’ in the Wind.”)
Prior to that, Laurie Anderson offered a droning “Talkin’ New York” (“This song is just 1, 4 and 5…but we’re going to do just 1!”) and Steve Buscemi ranted amiably through the firebrand talking-blues “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” alluding to how Dylan almost played it on The Ed Sullivan Show before getting axed from the bill (“With all due respect, you blew it, man!”, Buscemi told Ed, beyond the grave).
But the fuse wasn’t truly lit until Lisa Fischer, most famously the Rolling Stones’ backing singer for a quarter-decade, ripped through “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with a certain severe, wounded passion. Fischer was energized, sending “Rain” through tumultuous peaks and valleys — the line about “a man who was wounded in love” was sent up like a bottle rocket, the word “hatred” dragged from the pit of her stomach.
This must have been a tough gig to pull off. This is Dylan we’re talking about, but a very specific point in his career: there is no “Like a Rolling Stone,” no “Positively 4th Street.” Teddy Thompson, who seems to appear in 90% of these star-studded tributes, seemed slightly lost in the endless verses of “John Brown.” When someone would truly connect with the subject matter, the show’s energy spiked, especially when avowed boxing nut Mark Kozelek threw his whole body into “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, about the back-door politics of an infamous 1962 fight. Even Bill Murray stopped by unannounced to baby-step his way through a rather vulnerable reading of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
Tomorrow is a Long Time often veered between roast and tribute, whether featuring a moving reading of “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” by old Bob associate Bob Neuwirth or inviting Triumph the Insult Comic Dog onstage to hurl jabs at Dylan’s decaying voice. But the show worked specifically because it wasn’t an obsequious lovefest: no one may despise Dylan’s extremist fans more than Dylan himself. Besides, Dylan is very much still an active force in 2018, whether exhibiting his iron sculptures, hawking his brand of bourbon or dismantling his old hits around the globe.
You can find someone warbling through “Lay, Lady, Lay” at any coffeehouse in America. But last night at Town Hall, where every song was stretched, altered or decontextualized, honored another side of Bob Dylan.