Bob Dylan has had a legendarily long and varied musical life. He’s a shape shifter, changing looks and styles across the 56 years of his career—and in doing so often exasperating his die-hard fans—without any explanation. His constant evolution seems to bring him to the least likely places. In a recent surprising twist, Dylan has even taken to releasing CDs of his performances of sophisticated American standards of the ’30s and ’40s—you know, songs like “Young at Heart” and “All or Nothing At All,” songs that embody a tradition that might seem antithetical to the kind of bare-bones folk-based style Dylan started out with.
Local Dylan tribute band The Complete Unknowns embraces all of Dylan’s music. In recent years, they’ve taken to focusing their individual shows on particular periods of Dylan’s oeuvre. On September 10, the Complete Unknowns will return to Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, and this time they will be looking at Dylan’s mid-’70s music.
“It’s the Rolling Thunder years,” says Michael Weiskopf, the lead singer for the Complete Unknowns. The Rolling Thunder Revue was the name of Dylan’s celebrated concert tour of 1975-76. “Dylan was at his peak as a performer and was willing to share the limelight with other people,” says Weiskopf, noting how Dylan shed his customary aloofness on stage and was uncharacteristically generous with his audiences and fellow performers. Dylan shared the stage with Joan Baez throughout the tour, and the tour’s entourage included playwright Sam Shepherd, poet Allen Ginsberg and filmmaker Howard Aik. The Rolling Thunder Revue concerts featured revamped songs from Dylan’s folk period as well as new songs from the vital records he was making at the time.
Exploring the mid-’70s gives the band a lot of great songs to choose from. “His studio work from the time is iconic,” says Randolph Hudson III, lead guitarist for the Complete Unknowns.
Indeed, Dylan’s mid-’70s period saw the release of three solid albums after a series of relative disappointments. Planet Waves (1974), recorded with The Band, yielded “Forever Young,” an instant classic. The masterful Blood on the Tracks (1975) is considered by many to be the greatest achievement of Dylan’s career, and is sometimes thought of as a comeback album even though Dylan hadn’t gone anywhere—it’s just that good. Blood on the Tracks features such gems as “Tangled Up in Blue,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “Simple Twist of Fate”—songs that recast Dylan as a confessional singer-songwriter of the first order, although he has strenuously denied any autobiographical allusions in the songs. Finally, 1976’s Desire capped off this fruitful period, containing the cheerful “Mozambique,” the haunting “One More Cup of Coffee,” and the explosive “Hurricane,” a song protesting the controversial incarceration of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
“It’s an interesting period,” says Hudson. “With ‘Hurricane,’ Dylan briefly revisited the Civil Rights struggle that he hadn’t really touched in a while. At the same time, he was experimenting with a new theatricality.” Dylan had recruited Mick Ronson from David Bowie’s band, which brought a taste of glam to the stage, and Dylan himself occasionally appeared on stage wearing white theatrical makeup.
Weiskopf is excited about recreating the energy of the Rolling Thunder Revue. “We’re going to bring in some guests to sing and play, and Bay Street is a great place for this kind of music. The sound is great, and the audience is right there.” And while Weiskopf has the daunting job of memorizing all of those Dylan lyrics, everybody remembers the chorus to “Forever Young”—so sing along.
The Complete Unknowns at Bay Street Theater, September 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets available at the theater, or call the box office at 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.