Mark McDermott

Like a Rolling Stone

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Andy & Renee host their 20th Annual Dylanfest

The 20th Annual Dylanfest takes place in El Segundo on Saturday. Photo by Ron Beliveau

by Mark McDermott

It began 20 years ago with Bob Dylan, a costumed idea and a smoky bar.

In the liner notes to the record Biograph, Andy Hill read about a party where everyone came dressed as a character in a Dylan song.

“Wouldn’t that be funny?” Hill said to his musical partner, Renee Safier. “But we’ll do it with music.”

The first year of what would become the annual Dylanfest was at the Hermosa Saloon. Safier wore a leopard skin pill box hat; Hill was dressed as the Jack of Hearts. Later iterations of the festival took place at Hill’s home in Torrance. The cops, ironically, always seemed to show up during the final song of a ten hour set, “I Shall Be Released”, which may or may not be a jail song, depending on who is listening, or singing:

They say everything can be replaced

Yet every distance is not near

So I remember every face

Of every man who put me here

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

“The question to me is whether he deserves to be there,” Hill said.

“I always think of being sort of the victim of the human condition, about how we imprison ourselves in our own preconceptions and limitations,” Safier said. “I don’t think I have once thought about it being in jail.”

“I feel that opening line speaks to the pain of memory,” Hill said. “How losing memory is really a good thing – just think how awful it would be if you remembered everything. Yet there are people we all know whose every day is like that. They can’t let go of whoever it was they think did something to them. And even if they did, what does it serve holding on to that memory?”

Andy & Renee at last year's Dylanfest. Photo by Ron Beliveau

Such is the Shakespearean world of Dylan. Andy and Renee – one of the South Bay’s most talented and enduring musical partnerships – have played this song together hundreds, if not a thousand times. Yet on the 1001th time, something more unfolds from three spare verses. Dylan’s work is by some mysterious alchemy more than just a collection of songs. It’s a world unto itself, and other worlds spin off it.

Hill, for one, was sent spinning from the North Country as a teenager when he first ran across the song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”  As Hill recalled in a documentary accompanying last year’s Dylanfest, back in 1979 he and  his musician friends, tired of disco, would randomly buy records by artists they’d just  kind of heard of and didn’t really know, assured that at least they’d find one song that would rise above the disco drivel.

One day he bought Dylan’s Live at Budoken, which had the lyrics printed on the sleeve. He hadn’t even listened yet when Dylan grabbed his attention. Everything changed the moment Hill read “It’s Alright, Ma.”

“I was stunned,” he recalled. “It was the longest song I’d ever seen. It seemed to contain the whole world. As an aspiring songwriter, I was intimidated. I thought, ‘This is what you have to do.’ And each year as we return to this expanding work and we assemble the musicians in our rehearsal space …and these songs wash over us in their various forms and we witness a variety of singers, particularly those unaccustomed to carrying lyrics of such import and poetry on that most sensitive of musical instruments, the human voice, all those feelings of awe return. And I think to myself, ‘This is what you have to do.’ This is what we get to do.”

Andy & Renee’s and their band Hard Rain are still at the reins of Dylanfest, which takes place this Saturday, May 8 at St. Anthony School in El Segundo from 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. But what began as an improvised costumed bar show has become something else – part concert, part celebration, part ritual and part reunion. Nearly 50 musicians will take the stage, playing a set list of 62 Dylan songs. They range from professionals such as Marty Rifkin, a multi-instrumentalist string player who has toured with Bruce Springsteen, to Andy’s 8-year-old son Chase Hill, who reportedly does a mean version of “Wagon Wheel” complete with a Southern drawl.

Somewhere along the line, as word of the festival began spreading, musicians sought out Andy & Renee and asked to take part in Dylanfest. They embraced what fast became a sprawling celebration of Dylan, but it wasn’t random – they carefully matched singers with songs. In the vast canon of Dylan, it seems, there is a song for everybody.

“A Dylan song is often musically very simple,” Hill said in last year’s documentary. “Many of his albums are like rough demos. And as such, they act like an empty vessels into which a singer or a musician can pour his or her creative and musical experience. In a way, they are the most democratic of songs…I mean that players from across the music spectrum of ability have equal access. A person with the most rudimentary musical ability to the most gifted musician can enter into these songs with equal access and produce something beautiful.”

Take, for example, the case of Fuzzy Thurston.

“Fuzzy Thurston is an African-American R&B singer whose primary role in the world is as a math teacher,” Hill said. “But he comes from a very musical family, and one day at a party somebody took out a guitar and he was  singing and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s got a compelling voice. What could he sing at Dylanfest?’”

This was before the voluminous Dylan bootleg series had been officially released, but there was a song floating around on unofficial bootleg tapes that had never been released – like so many of Dylan’s castaway masterpiece– called “Blind Willie McTell”:

See them big plantations burning

Hear the cracking of the whips

Smell that sweet magnolia blooming

See the ghosts of slavery ships

I can hear them tribes a-moaning

Hear that undertaker’s bell

Nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell….

Thurston’s performance of the song has since become one of the annual highlights of the festival. Other performers have likewise become regulars – an 8-piece church group from Torrance called The 8 Tracks, James Lee Stanley, Michelle Porter, and many, many others. This year, Paul Zollo – a musician and music writer who conducted one of the finest interviews of  Dylan on record – is among the performers.

The festival has become a genuine South Bay institution.

“One of the things for me about playing all these songs is that Dylan fans – not necessarily fans of ours – come out to hear the songs,” Safier said. “All day long you watch these people sitting out there and look at them singing along to ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ or whatever we are playing…It’s really cool. They’ll sing along and know every word to like a 15 verse song and kind of plan part of their year around  Dylanfest.”

The backbone of the festival remains Andy & Renee. They seem somehow fated to do this. The duo met in at the University of Denver. Andy had come from Canada to play hockey and Renee had migrated from Texas. They met through music, and bonded through Dylan. They played a little bit together in college, but then drifted off to various musical endeavors and stayed in touch, barely, through letters.

One day three years later Andy found himself in LA and wondered aloud to a mutual friend about Renee. He was supposed to be leaving in a few days, but he found a number for her and found out that she happened to be visiting the very next day. They got in touch when she arrived. She was in the Valley, she told him on the phone, in Sherman Oaks. He got out his Thomas Guide. He was two blocks away.

This was 1985. They have been singing together almost ever since. The singer/songwriter Steve Earle is fond of saying, “Bob Dylan invented our job.” Andy & Renee are accomplished artists in their own right – she possesses that rare high country combination of sweetness and sass, while he is a barreling yet somehow nuanced singer – but they are also as good as  anyone alive at honoring the inventor of their craft.

“It’s just mind-boggling that one person wrote all this material, and at the level it is at,” Safier said. “It’s just extraordinary.”

“I think I would have grown out of music if it weren’t for discovering Bob Dylan and people like him,” Hill said. “What he did with music was bigger than music. Music was a vehicle, a gateway to the rest of the world, and to carry those parts of the world you cared to talk about.”

Dylanfest is at St. Anthony School, 233 Lomita, El Segundo, from 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. See andyandrenee.com for more information. ER

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