Review by Tara Needham
Photographs by Jason Spiro
The house band included Donald Fagan of Steely Dan on organ and long-time Bob Dylan collaborator Larry Campbell on electric guitar, as well as fiddle and lap steel. The musical bar was set high for the more than 20 artists who participated in the Woodstock Day School benefit concert and birthday tribute to Bob Dylan, and as a whole, and individually each in their own way, the artists met or surpassed that bar.
The multi-generational cast of performers featured up-and-coming blues prodigy Connor Kennedy (who received the night’s only standing ovation), Malaysian singer-uke player Zee Avi, famed alt-rockers A.C. Newman (of the New Pornographers) and Aaron Freeman (aka, Gene Ween), along with the likes of such seasoned artists as Kate Taylor (James’ sister and a moving singer in her own right), event organizer Happy Traum and Teresa Williams, who presented a delicately arranged and haunting rendition of “Boots of Spanish Leather.”
Each act was allowed no more than two Dylan songs each, and elegantly turned over the stage to the next artist with amazing swiftness for what could have been a logistically challenging show.
Mike + Ruthy, reminiscent of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, sang close harmonies over fiddle and banjo. Amy Helm gave one of the most riveting performances of the night, her voice ranging from a soft whisper to a guttural, pain-seared delivery, hanging on each note. Though left unspoken, the night also served as an ad hoc tribute to her beloved father, Levon Helm, who passed away only weeks earlier.
The night showcased how the Dylan repertoire, though based around simple or standard chord progressions, allowed each artist to play with texture, arrangement, melodic phrasing and rhythmic intensity, foregrounding the lyric genius and epic storytelling of his songbook.
Many performers sang back-up for others, and group numbers closed out the night, with even the audience singing along to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The evening was a rich relay of talent cooperating, not competing, in Woodstock style, all clearly in awe of the tremendous company they were keeping.
Earlier in the evening, the Woodstock Day School Band – several vocalists singing harmony and solos, with horns, bass, keyboard and drums – tried their hand at “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (and tore up “Sir Duke”) as Woodstock nurtured its next generation of music lovers and musicians.