If you've ever picked up a guitar at all, and certainly if you have ventured to write a song, over the last 50 years or so, there is a decent chance that you yourself have played one of Bob Dylan's songs. To cover Dylan at one point or another, in public or in private, is almost inevitable for pretty much anyone making rock or roots music. But for the last 10 years, Jon Houlon (of the band John Train) and Kenn Kweder have elevated this simple and oft-repeated act to the status of communal event with their annual Bob Dylan Birthday Bash at Rembrandt's in Fairmount. Tomorrow, the great man turns 75, and of course, Jon and Kenn and many, many of their friends will be there to perform and celebrate. We asked Jon a few questions about the how's and why's of their million dollar bash.
This marks the 10th anniversary for the Dylan tribute at Rembrandt's. What's the origin story, and was it always so jam-packed?
I can’t remember why we started it. Bob’s songs lend themselves to solo performances, which are what you need to keep things moving in a show with this many performers. It is, indeed, always jam packed. With 40 performers, if each one bring out 5 people, etc etc. Guaranteed success! Do the math. Plus, there are a lotta Dylan nuts in Philly. People sit through all 4+ hours.
What are the most hotly contested tunes among the artists who play each year? As in, what are the songs that people vie for the most?
I’m always amazed that more people don’t go for "Tangled Up in Blue," "Blowin’ in the Wind," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Knockin' On Heaven’s Door," etc. The Philadelphia Dylan community knows the deep album cuts. I had someone threaten to play "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" this year in celebration of Blonde on Blonde’s 50th Anniversary. I talked ‘em off the ledge, tho.
Conversely, what is the most widely neglected parcel of the Dylan catalog?
The '80s. However, for the very first time, someone will play a song from the much reviled Down in the Groove LP. (Hint: Nick Cave did this one, too.)
In the entire ten year run, what stands out for you personally as the single most magnificent rendition of a Dylan song at this event?
Other than my own performances? Hah! Wesley Stace backed by Pete Donnelly, Pat Berkery, and Rosie McNamara doing "Farewell, Angelina." A very long and obscure song. Wes killed it.
For those playing along at home, any advice for those first endeavoring to do their own Dylan covers?
Just do ‘em. I personally think it’s a big mistake to try to, say, write a song without first digesting Bob’s catalogue. It’d be like trying to write fiction without reading Melville first. Dylanchords.info is a great source. Unlike most tabs on the internet, these are generally on point. If you wanna play something from Blood on the Tracks, you need to retune your guitar to open E. Otherwise, it’ll never sound as cool as Bob’s does on that record.
10th Annual Bob Dylan B’day Bash hosted by Kenn Kweder and Jon Houlon takes place Tuesday, May 24th, 6pm. Rembrandt's, 741 N. 23rd St.