It was May 24th 2003 when I showed up at Manitoba’s, one of New York’s great dives, to watch a couple of friends play Dylan covers in honor of the icon’s birthday at the first annual Dylan Fest. It was a deliciously messy night filled with imprecise but enthusiastic playing, lots of shots of whiskey, and wholehearted, bar-wide sing-alongs. Though there were just a few people there and a handful of writers moonlighting as musicians on the tiny stage; the vibe was a perfect distillation of what we’re all looking for in a rock show. That sense of transcendent, celebratory, I’m-not-alone-in-the-world joy. Dylan Fest has grown into a small empire now, with liquor sponsors and superfamous guests and offshoots like the Petty Fest and the Stones Fest but they’ve never lost that signature feel, like you and your buddies gathered in someone’s suburban basement to play loose covers of your favorite songs.
That’s exactly what I walked into the other night at Bowery Ballroom during Stones Fest 2013. Norah Jones was onstage doing “Salt of the Earth.” I walked upstairs to the VIP balcony to survey the scene and, in an attempt to avoid jostling the cute waitress carrying trays of sliders, instead ran smack into Jakob Dylan and Butch Walker, who were heading backstage to get ready for their guest slots. Beer cups filled to the brim with Jamesons were making the rounds and on the side balcony I spied Perry Farrell at a table with his wife sitting on his knee but the VIP area is really the last place you wanted to be. The good stuff is downstairs, in the mess, where you can get the best view of one new guest after another and sing along loudly with other stupidly happy fans. “This song is so hedonistic from a man’s point of view that it’s almost feminist,” explained Har Mar Superstar, wearing a “Fuck Mick Jagger” t-shirt and introducing “Under My Thumb,” which he destroyed in a good way. Criminally underappreciated Jersey Girl rebel Nicole Atkins lost her mind (and seemingly shredded her vocal chords) on a stunning rendition of “Shattered,” before Jesse Malin sang most of “Miss You,” (probably my favorite Stones song of all time) from the crowd, and got many an audience member to crouch down in the sticky ick of the Bowery floor with him. That was all before Black Keys’ Patrick Carney took over from drummer Matt Romano for “The Last Time” and Regina Spektor joined Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell (probably my favorite guitarist of all time) for “Jumping Jack Flash.”
Campbell was in town to perform a string of shows at the Beacon with Tom Petty. I saw a few of those as well. During the Monday night gig Petty dedicated “Cabin Down Below” to the crew at The Cabin, the increasingly legendary East Village bar named after Petty’s song, which serves as a kind of club house for the organizers of the Dylan/Stones/Petty festivals. (The backing band at all of these gigs is called The Cabin Down Below Band). It was such an intimate gesture, the kind of thing that only happens in the surprisingly small world of rock and roll and almost exclusively in this city, which can feel like the biggest meanest most imposingly glamorous place on the planet but then also, in moments like this, when you’re watching a rock star you absolutely worship call out your friends’ bar, seems like a warm, homey small town.
I’ve been writing this column for more than two years now, and though I’ve documented the misbehavior of many different rock stars, the central character in Date With the Night has always been New York City. It’s fitting, then, that the last installment, which you are reading right now, would fall on a week where I stood backstage next to a discarded fruit plate and crumbled up cookies at a Tom Petty gig and almost spilled my drink on Perry Farrell’s tiny wife but what really resonated was falling in love all over again with this crazy town.