To hear Gene Shay — a longtime lion of the local folk scene and a founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival — tell it, he was the first man to bring Bob Dylan to town 1963 for his debut concert at Rittenhouse Square's Ethical Center. "He came down from New York City by train with Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend at the time who was on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. We paid him $150 and he looked as boyish as he did on that album's cover," says Shay.
Dylan very nearly didn't play that gig — but to hear the rest of that story, you'll have to show up at Rembrandt's on Tuesday, May 24 for Kenn Kweder and Jon Houlon's 10th Annual Bob Dylan B’day Bash. In celebration of Dylan’s actual 75th birthday, 40 Philly performers will perform 40 Dylan songs with no two alike amongst this lot. Shay will also tell his tales of hanging out with Bob.
"So many great ones are pushing off these days: Bowie, Haggard, Prince, Guy Clark," says Houlon, who fronts John Train and the Donuts. "It’s important to celebrate the greatest one of all time while he’s still here. We keep doing it, year after year, because the show gets better and better each year."
While Houlon plays the Dylan classic "Workingman Blues #2", co-host Kweder will be covering his own Dylan favorite, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” "I'm doing this one because it's a perfect song — that's it," says Kweder. Though he's been busy gearing up for the June 4 screening of his biographical documentary “Adventures of a Secret Kidd” at the Tin Angel, he wasn't too preoccupied to make this annual Dylan celebration the best that it can be. "We’ve got some new faces this year — we’re very excited about Nalani and Sarina, twins from NJ who recently played for the Boss — along with the usual folks like Jim Boggia, Ben Arnold, Lauren Hart, Slo-Mo and such."
Here's what several other of the Dylan birthday celebration participants said about why they chose their cover tune tributes to the birthday boy:
Chris Malcarney: "The Philadelphia Ukulele Orchestra is doing "The Mighty Quinn." I always try to pick something upbeat, poppy, and not so heavy from Dylan's catalog because we’re playing ukes."
Slo-Mo Mike Brenner: "I'm playing lap steel behind singer/guitarist Lance Davis. Lance has a powerful voice with a big range. We're doing "Forever Young." Tough tune to sing because it's such a key Dylan song. It's a positive, hopeful song, almost like a hymn. It's also appropriate in that May 24 is my daughter Ruby's birthday too and I wish for her to remain forever young."
Ben Arnold: "I'm doing "I Threw It All Away" from “Nashville Skyline.” I love country Bob. Also, I have a lousy memory and it only has a couple of verses, so there's that."
Nalani Bolton: "Our mom raised us on Dylan. She would read us his lyrics when we were younger almost like story books. Before we pursued our career in music, we sang backup for a folk band and the song that really stood out to us was “I Shall Be Released." “
Sarina Bolton: "The words have without a doubt taken on new meanings as we've gotten older; it's one of those songs where you think, 'Man I wish I wrote that.' It really is a simplistic, beautiful song."
Tuesday, May 24, Rembrandt's Restaurant & Bar, 741 N 23rd Street, starting at 6 p.m.