Beginning in the 1960s, the music and words of Bob Dylan spoke to a generation of young and newly restless souls. The poet/singer/songwriter arrived on the scene at just the moment he was needed, as unrest, frustration with the establishment and the fight for civil rights were growing.
While in his songs he channeled the energy of the great Woody Guthrie, who came a generation earlier, Dylan re-envisioned the message and brought a unique sound to folk music. With a cultural shift on the horizon, Dylan became the messenger who called attention to the underclass, the struggling and the marginalized in society’s ranks.
The times, indeed, were a-changin’.
Given the turbulence in this country today, the music of Bob Dylan feels as relevant now as it did in the 1960s. Which is why East End Dylan fans are fortunate to have in their midst The Complete Unknowns, a band comprising a local, and often rotating, slate of seasoned musicians who bring Dylan’s work, including many of his lesser-known numbers, to stages all around the area.
On Friday, September 7, as part of HarborFest weekend in Sag Harbor, The Complete Unknowns will be at Bay Street Theater where they will perform a wide range of music from Dylan’s six-decade career.
Recently, the band’s front man and one of its founding members, lead vocalist, guitarist and harmonica player Michael Weiskopf, sat down in East Hampton to talk about the group, his fellow musicians, and the timeless nature of Dylan’s music.
“The thing about Bob Dylan, his songbook is so peripatetic, so diverse,” Mr. Weiskopf said when asked why he believes the music still speaks to audiences. “The hard thing is to choose the songs you’ll do on any given night. When you look back at the ’60s protest songs, some called them finger-pointing songs. You had people like Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs … but Dylan’s work—songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’—stands up like the others don’t.”
The reason for that may lie in the fact that Dylan is not just a musician but a poet as well. Mr. Weiskopf shared a famous incident from the 1970s involving Dylan and record producer Jerry Wexler, co-owner of Atlantic Records. The story goes that prior to making his album “Slow Train Coming,” Dylan interrupted Wexler’s recording session with Etta James in order to share some new songs he had written on the piano, a change from his usual instrument, the guitar.
“He basically said, ‘I did the words thing, now I want to do the music thing,’” Mr. Weiskopf said. “It’s clear he invented an entirely different genre of music. He wrote incredibly interesting lyrics with storytelling, and played blues and rock ’n’ roll. It had its roots in American music but was different.”
Which may explain why, in 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In classic Dylan fashion, the musician opted to skip the awards ceremony by saying he had too many other commitments on his plate.
“He was always restless, creatively, and never sat still. Like Picasso, who said, ‘I’ve done my blue period—what’s next?’ he’s always working,” Mr. Weiskopf said. “He does 157 shows a year and is on the road constantly. I never miss an opportunity to see him.”
In fact, Dylan, who is now 77 years old, will be performing in Florida in October—and Mr. Weiskopf will be there to see him.
“There are times where he’s clearly phoning in it, but he’s always interesting to watch,” said Mr. Weiskopf, who once found himself in the same Greenwich Village bar as Dylan, but he didn’t approach him. “He was with his wife. I felt he didn’t need me to tell him who he was.”
If he had spoken up, Mr. Weiskopf might have told Dylan how much his music affected him as a kid growing up in Brooklyn at a time when calls for social change were in the air.
“When Dylan came on the scene, I was going to school with kids who were being bused in. I was exposed to all different kind of cultures. But the cognitive dissonance was stunning, and so many people were resisting change,” Mr. Weiskopf explained. “But I thought, this is what it was all about.
“Dylan changed minds by banging on people’s heads.”
When The Complete Unknowns first arrived on the South Fork music scene in 2008, the band was as an outgrowth of an earlier music project known as The Lost Keys. Mr. Weiskopf formed the group with guitarist Randolph Hudson III and other area musicians who have been part of the band over the years, including drummers Jim Lawler and James Benard, as well as legendary guitarist Klyph Black.
“Klyph is like the Neil Young of this band,” Mr. Weiskopf said. “He comes and goes, because he’s in so much demand.”
Today, Mr. Weiskopf has a full roster of musicians he can call on for shows, but he admits that in the early days, the concept of a Bob Dylan-themed band wasn’t always an easy sell for some musicians who felt the repertoire would be too limiting.
“Some of the players, when they initially started playing with us, didn’t think he was that musically complex,” Mr. Weiskopf said. “Then they’re saying, ‘Oh, I never noticed that chord change or that progression.’ The palette is so wide, you can look at the gospel years and pull out a whole different kind of musicality.”
Covering Dylan’s material from his long and prolific career opens up the possibilities in creating set lists, and Mr. Weiskopf explained that he and the band often like to serve up those more obscure numbers during their concerts—and it’s a choice that’s paid off. The Complete Unknowns have a musical reputation that now extends well beyond the confines of Eastern Long Island. The band regularly plays at City Winery on Varick Street in Manhattan, and for six years was the tribute band at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, until it closed earlier this year.
“I think there are great bands who wing it, and good bands who try and wing it but will never be great. So we aspire to be great,” said Mr. Weiskopf. “We prepare, but, after 10 years, if someone says, ‘Let’s not do this, because we have the crowd in a certain a frame of mind, let’s keep them there a little longer,’ we will.
“My job is to deliver the songs. I’m the words guy. If I do a word wrong, I notice it, though sometimes the crowd won’t,” he said. “Whether I’m doing Dylan’s material or my own, I inhabit it. I look at a song like a script. If I can’t relate to the character, I can’t even remember the words.”
Since he began performing as a musician on the East End, Mr. Weiskopf has seen the music scene here grow exponentially and said he is impressed by the depth of the local performers and what they have to offer.
“I’ve been here 20 years and the community has always been deep,” said Mr. Weiskopf, who has just released “Lost in Amerika: 9½ Stories,” his fourth record. “I became a full-time musician in 2004, and I think there are people I always looked up to here and thought I could never play with.
“But these people have been nice enough to play with me—like Klyph, he’s a guitar hero and I always aspire to have that level of talent. Got to keep moving.”
… Like a rolling stone.
The Complete Unknowns perform on Friday, September 7, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. In addition to Mr. Weiskopf, the lineup includes guitarist Randolph Hudson III, keyboardist Stuart Sherman, bass player Taka Shimizu, guitarist Klyph Black, James Benard on drums, percussionist Alex Sarkis and vocalist Lauren Matzen. Guest performers include Damian Sanchez on saxophone, clarinet and flute, Martha Mooke on violin and viola, and vocalist Wendy Caplan. Tickets are $25 at baystreet.org.
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One fine body…