Michael Gray’s “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues” starts out as a one-man show, but as the evening unfolds and the accumulation of stories, observations and music samples reaches critical mass, you realize that you’re actually watching an epic — a journey across an expansive musical and cultural landscape with a cast of dozens, if not hundreds. I watched Gray’s performance Friday in Nyack, N.Y., and the intimate theater space quickly filled with the voices, if not the actual spirits, of Big Joe Williams, Victoria Spivey, the Mississippi Sheiks, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie and, of course, Dylan himself. You could hardly ask for better company on a night out.
If you’ve read Gray’s magisterial Song and Dance Man, particularly the chapter “Even Post-Structuralists Oughta Have the Pre-War Blues” (a chapter big enough and detailed enough to serve as a book in its own right), then you’ll be familiar with Gray’s argument that blues, particularly pre-World War II blues, remained the foundation for even the most extreme experiments Dylan undertook after “going electric” in the mid-Sixties. What you won’t know about is until you see Gray in person is the blend of passion, enthusiasm and showmanship he brings to bear making it. This was not a display of fanboy gushing or cultish obsessions, but the articulate, witty and tremendously engaging insights of a man who rightly considers Bob Dylan a landmark artist, has spent years thinking about the man’s art and, on the evidence of the Nyack performance, made every minute of those years count for something.
As is only to be expected with the author of a book titled The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Gray has an apparently bottomless well of facts and anecdotes, but he comes bearing recordings and film clips as well. The audio included Big Joe Williams singing “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World,” generously giving space for the voice and harmonica of a very young pup formerly known as Robert Zimmerman; for video, there was Dylan’s famous appearance with a cranked-up punk band on The David Letterman Show, and the promo clip for “Blood In My Eyes,” which I’d never really given any serious thought until Gray set it up properly for me.
That night’s show was given even more fizz by the presence of a very chatty Rob Stoner, bassist and bandleader during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tours, who lives and teaches music in West Nyack. Stoner let it drop that another documentary in the style of No Direction Home is in the works, this time focused on the Rolling Thunder days. That’s great news: as significant as Dylan’s mid-Sixties moult from folk hero to rocker undoubtedly is, I’m eager to see a good documentary about some of the less pawed-over but still artistically commanding phases of his career.
Stoner didn’t share the stage with Gray, but during the intermission he was more than happy to share his thoughts with members of the audience. This was a particular thrill for my writer pal Nick DiGiovanni, who had the privilege of seeing the Rolling Thunder Revue roll through Niagara Falls, N.Y. He writes about the Nyack event here and the Rolling Thunder show here.
Nick and I had the pleasure of knocking back some wine with Gray after the performance, and one of these days I’ll have to tell you the delightful story of how warm and attentive Dylan was in greeting Gray’s son after a 1978 show, or the aggro that comes from dealing with editors who think Robert Johnson is the be-all and end-all of blues study, but soft, we are observed. If you are sufficiently interested in Dylan’s work to be reading this post, then you owe it to yourself to see Gray’s performance.
Gray’s superb study of the life and times of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, is going to get its long-overdue U.S. edition later this year, and we can only hope its publication brings Gray back to our shores sometime soon.