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The Next Best Thing to Dylan

Mon, 09/05/2022 - 13:10
The Complete Unknowns, shown here in 2019, will be a somewhat stripped-down five-piece ensemble, with a few special guests, when they celebrate the music of Bob Dylan tomorrow and Saturday at Bay Street Theater.
Courtesy of Bay Street Theater

Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter, continues to surprise. Indefatigable at 81, our greatest living poet is busily touring Europe this year, his website advertising a tour stretching into 2024. His 2020 album "Rough and Rowdy Ways," released into a maelstrom of pandemic, protest, and political hysteria, included the extravaganzas "Murder Most Foul," "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)," and other reflections on mortality and America. 

"What's new, pussycat? What'd I say? / I said the soul of a nation been torn away / And it's beginning to go into a slow decay," he sang on "Murder Most Foul," an epic 17-minute indictment/lament that weaves postwar pop and jazz history amid recurring references to the November 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. That violent act, occurring near the beginning of Mr. Dylan's career, is echoed, near its conclusion, in the deluge of threats directed at elected officials and law enforcement, incited, incredibly, by a former president. 

South Fork fans may be unable to see Mr. Dylan this year, but they do have an opportunity to see the Complete Unknowns, a band celebrating Mr. Dylan's music, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tomorrow's concert launches HarborFest 2022. 

"Bob can't be everywhere at once, as peripatetic as he is," said Michael Weiskopf, who co-founded the Complete Unknowns with Randolph Hudson III, a guitarist, about 15 years ago. "Out of 650 songs that we know about, he can only perform 17 to 20 on a given night. So we're reaching for something a little different with these shows, in that we have two nights and we're not repeating a song. We're going deep on some tracks because we like to and the hardcore Dylan people expect it, and we'll play things people are familiar with and things we haven't played before."

Owing to the lingering presence of the much-mutated Covid-19, the band will be a somewhat stripped-down version of itself this weekend, a five-piece outfit comprising Mr. Weiskopf on vocals and guitar, Mr. Hudson, Stuart Sherman on keyboards, Taka Shimizu on bass, and Alex Sarkis on drums. Arlethia (Mamalee) Lawler and her husband, Jim Lawler, late of the South Fork favorites Mamalee Rose and Friends, will guest on vocals and percussion, respectively. 

The smaller group "adds a different dimension to what we're doing in terms of the way we approach the music," Mr. Weiskopf said. "It's a lot easier to sing with five rather than seven or eight onstage. We're having a lot of fun with it. I don't think the band's ever sounded better than it sounds now. We've gotten a lot under our belt over these 15 years." 

Mr. Dylan's current setlists are heavy on songs from "Rough and Rowdy Ways," Mr. Weiskopf said. "You're not going to hear what we play if you go to see a Dylan show these days, and that's cool. He keeps clearing a path for the rest of us." Rather, he said, each of the Complete Unknowns' unique performances this weekend will feature a cross-section of Mr. Dylan's catalog, hinting at songs co-written with the late George Harrison, a friend with whom Mr. Dylan performed in the Traveling Wilburys, and others that until recently were available only on bootleg recordings. "Hopefully, there will be something for everybody," he said. 

Like Mr. Dylan, Mr. Weiskopf, who has recorded several albums of his own music, has been on the move in recent years, spending time in New York City, Miami, and Europe. He recently recorded in Los Angeles. Also like Mr. Dylan, he has keen observations of America and Americans. "We're living in a very dysfunctional place," he said. "In a lot of ways, this country is still litigating the Civil War. We never really came together after, for a variety of reasons." 

As a youth, "we had the ludicrous drills for 'duck and cover.' We all knew it was bullshit -- if a bomb was going to hit, we were going to die. But it seemed very abstract to us. We didn't have active shooter drills." Today, "they build schools without windows, they look like prisons. . . . I feel for kids today."

But "I don't want to politicize Bob's music," he added. "I do with mine. But I think that there's a voice of reason that gets shouted down from every angle."

The good news, however, is that live music is back, and audiences are, sometimes gingerly, stepping back into venues as well. "We were on a roll, pre-Covid," Mr. Weiskopf said. "We've reached really high with this band. Sometimes we're able to grasp it."

Tickets are $35 and $45.

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