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Minnesota Music Review: Free Wheelin' Duluth Does Dylan

A drawing in a woodblock style of Bob Dylan playing guitar with a lighthouse in the background and the words Free Wheelin' Duluth Does Dylan in the lower right corner

Duluth native son Bob Dylan has produced one of the deepest, most important musical catalogs in American music. Every few years musicians from his old neighborhood dive into the catalog, swim around in all those songs and create something clean, cool and distinctly north country.

Free Wheelin’ Duluth Does Dylan, released last month on Spinout Records, features a variety of working Twin Ports-connected bands, solo artists and special guest collaborators each performing a song written by the master. The 15-track album is the fifth Duluth Does Dylan album released since 2000, a project that explores both well-known classics and obscure deep tracks from throughout the decades.

It’s an exciting project. Executive producer Tim Nelson has fine-tuned a musical formula over the years that connects two big armies: Dylan fans and Duluth music lovers.

Free Wheelin’ is a record sure to please Dylan fans. The songs here are for the most part straightforward, sincere readings of some of his best work. It also serves as a fine showcase for northland musicians. Tracks from trusty, hardworking veterans are mixed with young, up-and-comers or local artists expanding their audience elsewhere to give the record a solid, fresh feel.

The whole thing sounds like it was recorded in Dylan’s backyard while he occasionally glanced out a window to make sure no one was throwing lawn furniture in his swimming pool. Dylan need not worry; the focus on this record is artistry, not party music.

A rollicking version of "I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight" opens the record, featuring the ramshackle harmonies of Rich Mattson and Germaine Gemberling. Blistering fiddle lines from Ryan Young of Trampled by Turtles race throughout the song, giving it a unique, country charm.

Things get more reverent when the duo Cry on Cue, led by one-time Haughton, Michigan record producer Bernie Larsen, joins forces with Erik Koskinen and Low guitarist Alan Sparhawk on "Sweetheart Like You." As a subtle, atmospheric guitar slowly builds, Sparhawk takes the record from a simple ballad into another sound dimension. Larsen demonstrates a delicate vocal touch to match the dark, quiet mood.

Another moving piece here features a Paul Metsa interpretation of "Bob Dylan’s Dream." A veteran bluesman, Metsa puts the nostalgic lament - written by a 21-year-old Dylan - in proper context. Accompanied by just a guitar, fiddle and mandolin, Metsa uses the ragged whisper of a man who has sung 50,000 songs to stunning effect: “With hungry hearts through the heat and cold, we never much thought we could ever get old.”

Closing the album three tracks later, a youthful Lyla Abukhodair stomps on all that melancholy nostalgia. She ignites Dylan’s always-relevant, new-world anthem "The Times They are a Changin'" with a glorious punk rock howl.

The fact that Metsa and Abukhodair - separated by generations and miles of stage experience - work so well on the same record is what makes these Duluth Does Dylan records such an engaging listen.

Other highlights include Colleen Myhre’s quivering vocal ride on Boss Mama and the Jebberhooch’s "She Belongs to Me." Dave Mehling and Val Son give the wordless "Wigwam" such a light sweet spin it feels like cotton candy for the ears. Emily Haavik & the 35s deliver a nicely understated "Ring Them Bells" and Gavin St. Clair turns "Spirit on the Water" into a string ditty that sounds like a splash in the Lester River.

‘Free Wheelin’ Duluth Does Dylan’ is available on compact disc at the Cedar Lounge in Superior.

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