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Bob in the '80s: Diehard Fans Reclaim Dylan's Lost Decade

John McCauley and Ian O'Neil of Deer Tick
John McCauley and Ian O'Neil of Deer Tick
Photos Caitlin White

"Is anyone out there wearing shoulder pads?" asked Dawn Landes as she took the stage at Music Hall of Williamsburg Monday night to perform her take on Bob Dylan's "Dark Eyes." The audience cooed in response, happy to humor her '80s reference and more than willing to listen to the Kentucky singer-songwriter offer her take on an obscure Dylan track from his 1985 record Empire Burleseque.

Brooklyn's ample Dylan-loving audience had been drawn to celebrate the release of an ATO Records compilation titled Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume 1 (out 3/25), a project that was spearheaded by producers Jesse Lauter and Sean O'Brien. Entering the venue Monday felt like entering a coven--that many Bob-obsessed fans in one place without his presence was odd, and a little enticing. The show flyer boasted special guests.

Dare we hope for Bob himself?

See also: Bob Dylan's Star-Studded "Halftime Show" Gets Deluxe Treatment

But any Dylan fan who has done their homework knows he's often skeptical or downright cantankerous about his rabid fanbase, a fact that made this celebration of his most maligned period even more intriguing for diehard fans. "What would Dylan think of this gathering?" I wondered as I glanced around the room in a particularly earnest moment, while local folk act Spirit Family Reunion sang an acapella rendition of "Man of Peace" off 1983's Infidels. Would he guffaw at the religious-like admiration, or, begrudgingly smile and nod that the times had finally caught up to his '80s sound?

"He probably would've hated it," said Stephen Weinheimer, the washboard player of Spirit Family Reunion when I posed the question after the show. A quick pause and Weinheimer grins, shaking his head. "I'll change my mind, I bet people looked down on the '80s so much for him that he'd be happy people are celebrating it." Certainly though, for how often critics praise Dylan in other aspects, his Christian-themed decade has been continually held to the fire for sounding well, just so damn '80s.

"The whole purpose of the project was to show that maybe we didn't like the songs the first time we heard them, because maybe there was some sort of weird '80s over the top quality about them," said John McCauley of Deer Tick. He and bandmate Ian O'Neill performed two Dylan numbers for the show, "Night After Night" an original song from the Hearts of Fire soundtrack, a film Dylan also starred in, and "Mississippi" from Tell Tale Signs, one of Bob's infamous bootleg albums. On ATO's release, though, their re-imagination of "Night After Night" was included, with what McCauley and O'Neil call the "Carmelita" treatment. "If you strip everything down, they're all really good songs. If you listen to the original version, it's terribly '80s. So we re-imagined it with a Warren Zevon kind of treatment," McCauley said.

The whole purpose of the cover album--which Lauter mentioned to the audience he'd been dreaming up for nearly three years--was to reclaim this period of Dylan's music. Introducing longtime fans to an era of Dylan's work that has been almost entirely ignored. For those who were unfamiliar, Lauter helped chart the course, as was the case for Elvis Perkins of Elvis Perkins in Dearland.

"Jesse, the godhead here, he asked me to do it," Perkins said. "I didn't know any of the music. I didn't particularly like the sound from that period. But then we decided the Traveling Wilburys were game, I loved that stuff when MTV was feeding it to me as a kid." For his contribution, Perkins did "Congratulations," off Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. Recording the song in Perkins' upstate home, in the album's liner notes, Lauter relayed his surprise when Perkins began interpolating lyrics from better-known Dylan classics like "Lay Lady Lay," "Visions of Johanna" and "Like a Rolling Stone."

"Those totem lyrics, I couldn't resist," Perkins said. "I don't remember if I brought in the 'big brass bed' myself or not. I guess I like all of those songs better than that song. His language is so rich that if it can be played with it seems like it should be, and he does it himself."

Others felt more of a kinship to the '80s period than would be expected--Dawn Landes said her affinity for "Dark Eyes" has been strong ever since someone put it on a mixtape for her.

"I heard that song when a boy made me a mix CD, but it just stood out. I thought 'I can't believe this is Bob Dylan. I didn't even know this song!' It felt like him, it was so beautiful, the lyrics are so poetic and it was just a tear-jerker. When Jesse asked me about '80s Dylan, that was my first instinct." Though Dawn performed the track alone at the show, on the record it appears as a duet with fellow Kentuckian, the legendary Will Oldham, better known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

"I sang with Will at a Fleetwood Mac tribute show back in Louisville, so when this came up I wanted to work with him again," Landes said. "And I think Bob would've really loved the show. I can imagine him coming out and appreciating it."  

Elvis Perkins, John McCauley, album producer Jesse Lauter, and everyone else gather for a "Blowin' in the Wind" encore
Elvis Perkins, John McCauley, album producer Jesse Lauter, and everyone else gather for a "Blowin' in the Wind" encore

Regardless of the reaction the erratic Dylan would've had to the gathering, the audience ate it up. Earnest fans swayed and clapped for each performance, many sang along eagerly to well-worn tunes, while others basked in the renditions of songs that may never be performed live again. A number of the songs selected for the album have never been covered, and many are rarely (if ever) played by Dylan on his never-ending string of tour dates.

One such rarity is "Covenant Woman" which was performed by Hannah Cohen. The Bella Union artist said her first choices had been taken, but digging deeper helped her discover the track and grow to form a personal attachment to it.

"I haven't sang in public since November, so this was like ripping off the scab," Cohen admitted. "I distanced myself from the production and made it into a song about my very dear friend. It became an ode to our hard time, and my way of saying I'll be here. It's not a Jesus-y song for me."

I ask Hannah if she thinks Dylan would appreciate the group's effort to perform his songs. "I think Bob would appreciate another Jewess singing a Christ-y song," she laughed.

Even given the '80s styled production and the deeply religious imagery on many of Dylan's records from this decade, ATO's cover album reveals that his songwriting license never expired. The fresh takes on the tracks open up avenues that some of the period's aesthetic choices cloaked in synths, or, hid under Bob's signature croaks.

Truly a labor of love, the record and its release show, indicated that even during his darkest periods Dylan still drew diehard fans. Such is the nature of an icon, to outlive even the ire of a lambasted decade like the '80s. Dylan didn't show, but his restless, careening songs sound just as good out of other mouths and played by different hands.

Bob Dylan in the '80s: Volume 1 is out via ATO Records now. Buy it here.

Setlist:

"Saved" - Langhorne Slim "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight" - Osei Essed "Covenant Woman" - Hannah Cohen "Series of Dreams" - Yellowbirds "I Threw It All Away" - Yellowbirds "Man of Peace" - Spirit Family Reunion (A capella) "Wallflower" - Spirit Family Reunion "Congratulations" - Elvis Perkins in Dearland "Open the Door, Homer" - Elvis Perkins in Dearland "Dark Eyes" - Dawn Landes "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" - Dawn Landes "Night After Night" - Deer Tick "Mississippi" - Deer Tick "Got My Mind Made Up" - Langhorne Slim "Caribbean Wind" - Jesse Lauter "Blowin' In The Wind" - Encore/Everyone

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