Kesha performs onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 22, 2016 in Las Vegas. (Photo: KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES)
This time, however, she was joined by more than two dozen Dylan acolytes paying tribute to Robert Zimmerman at the first night of Dylan Fest, a two-night charity concert celebrating Dylan’s 75th birthday (the second night takes place on his actual birth date, May 24) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Kesha let the music do the talking as she pointedly performed Dylan’s gospel-tinged standard of freedom and redemption, “I Shall Be Released.” Dressed in what looked to be a powder blue sparkly Manuel suit and barefoot, Kesha started the song slowly, standing still by the microphone, before building to a swaying, dramatic conclusion, as she held the last “shall” in the final line and looked upward. She didn’t mention Dr. Luke as she continues to fight to be released from her contract with the producer’s Kemosabe label following her allegations that he sexually and verbally assaulted her, but her song choice spoke volumes.
In addition to Kesha, a number of artists turned in robust covers that brought the nearly sold-out audience to its feet.
Among the other top performances:
Emmylou Harris, Wynonna and Ann Wilson, “Ring Them Bells”: The trio performed a gorgeous rendition of the spiritual track from 1989’s Oh Mercy, with each taking a verse and then coming together in luscious, rich harmonies on the choruses. Harris’s delicate soprano perfectly complemented Wilson and Wynonna’s belting. Even Wynonna knew it was something special. As the women took the stage, she implored “Can someone take a picture of this and send it to @wynonnamusic? This crap doesn’t happen every day.”
Moon Taxi, “All Along The Watchtower”: The Nashville-based rock band and festival favorite received the evening’s longest standing ovation for its staggeringly powerful version of the ‘60s rock classic. Vocalist Trevor Terndrup and the band started the song with an almost jazzy feel before exploding in to an extended full-throttled rocker, complete with Spencer Thomson’s searing guitar solo that would have made Jimi Hendrix proud.
Ruby Amanfu, “Not Dark Yet”: Frequent Jack White collaborator Amanfu covered the melancholy track, originally from Dylan’s Grammy-winning album of the year, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, on her 2015 album Standing Still, but she took the song to a new height with her soulful, quietly powerful reading that wrenched all the resigned sadness of the song without ever tipping over into the maudlin.
John Paul White, “Just Like A Woman”: The former Civil Wars member took the Blonde on Blonde hit, recorded down the street 50 years ago at Nashville’s Studio A, and filled it with a sense of wonder, romance and great elegance. Charlie McCoy, who played guitar on the original recording, joined in on harmonica.
Tommy Emmanuel, “Nashville Skyline Rag”: Guitar hero and Chet Atkins protege was the perfect choice for the sprightly instrumental from 1969’s Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s foray into country music. His vibrant finger picking and light, melodic touch infused brightness into the ballad-heavy evening. Playing with the extremely capable house band, The Cabin Down Below Band, Emmanuel’s notes soared to the Ryman’s rafters.
Among the other artists appearing were Boz Scaggs, Kurt Vile, Butch Walker, Cory Chisel, Dhani Harrison, John Paul White, Nikki Lane, Holly Williams, The Whigs, Ray Benson, Brendan Benson, and City & Colour.
The Best Fest series, founded by Austin Scaggs, started 15 years ago in New York, fittingly enough, to celebrate Dylan’s 60th birthday and has grown into an annual celebration saluting a specific act. Past Best Fests have taken place in Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Chicago, and Dublin, dedicating the evening’s performances to such artists as Neil Diamond, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and George Harrison.
Proceeds from Dylan Fest are going to Thistle Farms, a Nashville-based charity that helps women survivors of abuse, addiction, trafficking and prostitution through its residential program and social enterprises, including its bath and body product line, and cafe, Thistle Stop Cafe.