B ob Dylan—or at least a reasonable facsimile of him—is back in town. Quebec-based writer/producer Peter Landecker portrays the music legend in the “theatrical biography” Long Time Gone: Words & Music by Bob Dylan. The Dylan character narrates the tale of his life, but sings just a couple of songs. The rest of the 20-plus Dylan tunes (some arranged as medleys) are handled by New York bluesman Guy Davis and vocalist BettySoo (from Austin, Texas), who put their own twist on the Dylan classics.
The show is a considerable commitment for Lyric Hall, the longest single engagement the cherished little theater venue in Westville has booked since it opened a couple of years ago. Long Time Gone began a series of four previews (each benefitting a different local charity) on January 18, opens January 24 and runs until February 10.
But if you’re going to take a chance on a musical history piece in New Haven, one about Bob Dylan is a safe bet. His bootheels have been wandering here off and on throughout his storied half-century career. From his folk coffeehouse days through his rock, gospel and “Rolling Thunder” periods, from soft to loud, from strident to heartrending.
Bob Dylan played the old New Haven Arena on March 6, 1965, brought his Rolling Thunder Revue to the then-pretty-new New Haven Coliseum in 1975 and worked a crowd of thousands at Yale’s Woolsey Hall on Nov. 16, 1991, into hysteria when he launched into a Grateful Dead cover. (The Dead were also playing in Connecticut that week, and there’d been rumors of guest appearances. No guests materialized, but Dylan and his band proved to be more than enough.)
Dylan’s most legendary New Haven stop was likely his six-hour long set at Toad’s Place in June 1990, an open rehearsal for an imminent tour. Toad’s founder Michael Spoerndle told of having to arrange for a grand piano, of a specific make and tuning, to be on the stage for Dylan, and that the show would not happen if the piano was not there. The clubowner sat by the sidelines for the entire epic set, and watched as Dylan completely avoided the instrument, brushing it lightly with his hands just once the whole night.
Dylan is also noted for a couple of shows he didn’t give in New Haven. In 1966, he was scheduled to play at the Yale Bowl but the show was canceled due to the famous motorcycle accident Dylan had in July of that year. In 1992, a Dylan show announced for the Palace Theater in New Haven was cancelled when the ever-activist artist refused to cross union picket lines at the theater.
With a new movie version of On the Road just released, all sorts of pivotal cultural icons are creeping back into consciousness. Many of these icons visited New Haven once upon a time.
Jack Kerouac was once sighted at a table at Clark’s Dairy on Whitney Avenue. Allen Ginsberg read at Yale on a number of occasions. Joan Baez (pictured above with Dylan) has been on coffeehouse stages and at Woolsey Hall. The best selling author Terry Southern (author of The Magic Christian and screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove) read at Yale just a week before his death in 1995.
The city of course has always had its own fervent folk music scene, poetry groups and other cultural or countercultural gathering points. The Exit Coffeehouse was such a vital part of city life in the late 1960s that when many of its regulars headed to New York to be part of the Woodstock Festival, a few graciously stayed behind to make sure the Exit was open. Folk festivals like those in other cities which fostered the rise of artists such as Dylan and Baez persist to this day, particularly the dynamic New Haven folk festival. Many of these events come augmented with activism: information booths, expos touting pro-environmental living, collections for charitable causes.
It’s nice to have the name Bob Dylan bandied about town again. His music lives on, and his image suits New Haven.
Long Time Gone: Words & Music by Bob Dylan
Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave., New Haven (map)
Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at 8 p.m. through February 10.
Tickets are $35, or $25 for students and seniors.
Written by Christopher Arnott.