Playback: Bob Dylan Goes Electric – Again!
Fifty years ago, Dylan and the Band went electric at Austin's Municipal Auditorium
Lost amongst Bob Dylan's many landmark moments of the mid-Sixties, including his electric attack on the Newport Folk Festival (July, 1965), his mysterious motorcycle crash (July, 1966), and his "Judas!" performance at Royal Albert Hall (May, 1966, and the show it references actually occurred at Manchester Free Trade Hall), is the birth of his historic collaboration with Basement Tapes buddies the Band at a concert in Austin 50 years ago today, Sept. 24.
The 24-year-old songwriter had just begun dismaying sweater-wearers with his evolution from folkie to rocker when a young Texas promoter named Angus Wynne cold-called the singer's manager Albert Grossman to secure Dylan's first Texas gig.
"He was a king coming in," says Wynne. "Dylan was very popular here because he'd sold a lot of records and was well-known for writing songs that other people recorded."
Accordingly, Wynne had no trouble moving $2-4 tickets for the concert, which took place at Austin's Municipal Auditorium, a large, seated hall where the Palmer Events Center stands today. Wynne was especially pleased to learn the backing musicians were Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel – then known as the Hawks – whose master roots groove he'd witnessed when he booked their onetime employer Ronnie Hawkins.
"They were the badass backing band of the time," declares Wynne.
Dylan arrived locally on a commercial flight and was met by a San Antonio-based promotions rep from Columbia Records named Joe Mansfield.
"I picked him up at the airport," remembers Mansfield. "He had this girl with him. I said, 'Who's that girl?' He said, 'She's a photographer – Annie Leibovitz.'"
The iconic photographer was just a teenager at the time.
"I told Dylan the TV and radio stations wanted to do interviews with him and he said, 'I don't want to do that,'" continues Mansfield. "I said, 'It's really important that you do it.' Bob finally said, 'If you can find an old gas station with an oil-change pit, I'll do interviews in the bottom of that.
"So I went out and found one. And he did it."
Dylan's Austin debut unfolded with a solo acoustic set including "Desolation Row" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" from the newly released Highway 61 Revisited. For his second set, the Band plugged in behind him.
"The second half of the show was pretty loose," remembers Wynne. "They started playing and, after a few minutes, Bob turned around and said, 'Crank it up!' Then everybody turned their amps up as high as they'd go and it overpowered the vocals. It was disconcerting, but also exciting. It was an experiment."
Mansfield recalls reaction to the volume.
"Everybody booed. They weren't ready for it."
Wynne's recollection of the second set, which included "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and eternal-closer "Like a Rolling Stone," differs.
"I don't think there was any real animosity about it," he offers. "Or if there was, you couldn't hear it anymore once the band started."
Veteran musician, booker, soundman, and Bob-head Paul Minor honors Dylan and the Band's locally historic golden anniversary with an all-star musical salute. The First Waltz, Sunday at Threadgill's World Headquarters Downtown, features 25 local artists including Carolyn Wonderland, Jonathan Terrell, Miles Zuniga, Sabrina Ellis, Guy Forsyth, Jimmy Smith, Earl Poole Ball, Rosie Flores, Colin Gilmore, and Carson McHone performing era-specific Dylan material with a house "Band."
Denny Freeman, the local guitar stylist who backed Dylan for over 500 shows and played on the album Modern Times, adds an air of authenticity to this weekend's tribute. Reinterpreting Dylan songs will be old hat to Freeman considering his onetime employer's own curveball interpretations.
"It was totally unpredictable," Freeman assesses of his tenure on Dylan's Never Ending Tour from 2005 until 2009. "We had a set list for each night and we even rehearsed before every show, but when we'd get the set list on the way to the stage, it wouldn't be unusual for a song to appear that I'd never heard of, much less played.
"Musically, it's kind of hard to talk about playing with Bob Dylan because nothing was ever the same. The only thing that didn't constantly change was the uncertainty about everything."
Holy Mountain's Last Hurrah
"I think we had the perfect-sized room to help nurture bands," appraises Holy Mountain owner James Taylor. "There were bands that three years ago could barely bring 20 people out on a Wednesday night who can now draw a crowd. For them, this room was where they grew up."
File Shakey Graves and Wild Child in that category. Taylor booked them together in 2011 when the club was still Beauty Bar. Those locals, both respectfully skyrocketing thereafter, returned to play a secret show at Holy Mountain to start the week. The venue vacates on Monday due to a rent increase.
Graves, who just snatched Emerging Artist of the Year at Nashville's Americana Awards, delivered a loose and personal performance that peaked with interlude-heavy versions of "Tomorrow" and "Proper Fence." Meanwhile, the Austin native – always the realist – offered his thoughts on the club's closure.
"I don't want this to be a sign of anti-growth in this town, but one of responsibility," he says. "If there's a venue you love, go there and spend money or it might get paved."
Taylor, who moves to Minneapolis next month, says the club's final days have been gratifying and surreal.
"Whether it's bands shouting me out onstage or regulars telling me Holy Mountain was a huge part of their life, it's special because, when you're doing it, it's a job. You don't stop to think how much it matters to people."
Last Saturday, Alex Elmiger, owner of vaporized alcohol specialists Minibar, confirmed that he's leased the space at 617 E. Seventh St., and will "keep it music-oriented." Holy Mountain summits with a stellar sign-off: tonight, Thursday, yields post-rockers This Will Destroy You, Friday funks with Hard Proof and Magna Carda, Saturday rawks employee-bands Eagle Claw, Not in the Face, and Feral Future, and Sunday closes down with Mike & the Moonpies, East Cameron Folkcore, and Harvest Thieves.
New Venue to Occupy Former Red 7 Space
Austin's live music faithful have been battered with bummers all summer via Red River's Seventh Street corridor, notably the shuttering of clubs Holy Mountain and Red 7. Wednesday's news brought hope to the district. A new venue will take over the former Red 7 building.
"We signed a five-year lease on the old Red 7 at 611 East Seventh Street last week and it's going to be a music venue," Johnny Sarkis confirmed via email.
In addition to Sarkis, a former partner at Red 7, ownership at the new venture includes Hotel Vegas owner/operators Jason McNeely and Brian Tweedy, Flesh Lights guitarist Max Vandever, and Cliff White. The group hasn't announced the name of the venue and plans to keep progress of the project private.
"We're going dark for a while and taking some time to create a space and brand that we're all excited about," wrote Sarkis. "Stay tuned."
McNeely will handle the lion's share of booking at the new space. He and Hot Burrito Productions partner Tweedy have a laudable track record as venue booker/managers. After transforming Spider House's fledgling venue annex into a popular rock & roll hang, they exited to sign on as co-owners of Hotel Vegas in 2012, upgrading it from an underachieving dive into one of the Eastside's most vibrant music venues.
Red 7 closed on August 28 after not being able to negotiate a new lease with their landlord.
Couch City Rockers: Furniture designers Blu Dot hosted performances at Snack Bar last weekend in which musicians plugged into a custom amplifier sofa. While "Playback" doubts the "couchlifier" will catch on, the trend of national brands associating with Austin music to look hip certainly has.
South by Southwest revealed its initial lineup of speakers and panelists on Tuesday. African diva Angelique Kidjo, Hall & Oates' better-half John Oates, critic of music industry misogyny Jessica Hopper – also appearing next month at the Texas Book Festival – have all been tapped for speeches.
White Denim plays Empire Control Room on Saturday – free if you download the new Do512 app. Could this be the debut of rumored new members Jonathan Horne (guitar) and Jeff Olson (drums)?
Weird City Hip-Hop, which was canceled due to low ticket sales and headliner scheduling conflicts, rebounds with a makeup event at Spider House Ballroom on Oct. 24. Their focus turns entirely local with 27 Austin acts.