By TOM CHESEK
Even on a drab, drizzly Monday night, there’s enough of a crowd at The Downtown to force the evening’s featured act to work extra hard to be heard.
Of course, the entertainer’s been at this gig a long time, having held down the Monday fort at the newly reconstructed West Front Street watering hole from its earlier incarnation as the Downtown Café. So if the gentle notes of his extended improv on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” tend not to receive the same attention as the happy-hour conversation, the Yankees-Indians game, the crabcake pops well, Pat Guadagno doesn’t seem to mind.
“I’m actually looking now for some days off,” the veteran Shore-bred guitarist and vocalist tells redbankgreen afterward. “In this business you spend so much time looking for work, that you never turn it down when it comes to you.”
It’s been a busier stretch than usual for the Monmouth Beach musician, as he prepares to take to the “legitimate” stage for the entire 27-show run of Mark Twain’s A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage, the new production at Red Bank’s Two River Theater.
And that’s actually the less stressful part of Guadagno’s activities at Two River. On Monday, May 19, he’ll feature in the 2008 edition of Bobfest, the Bob Dylan birthday tribute (the iconic music legend turns 67 on May 24) that he’s presented every year since 1999 a concert event that’s become an annual spring tradition in Red Bank, and yet another thing for local music fans to feel proprietary about.
Guadagno’s work in both solo settings and as a member of Shore music exponents The Candle Brothers has seen him pounding major pavement from Nashville to New Hampshire; sharing the stage with the likes of B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and even performing the national anthem at major league ballparks.
But it’s as founding father of Bobfest that he’s built his artistic legacy. The event has drawn nationwide interest and established him as a dedicated keeper of the Dylan flame, although he professes that he’s “not a worshipper.”
Don’t call him an impersonator, either. On stage, Guadagno who actually resembles Dylan contemporary David Crosby more than the gruff-but-lovable bard of Hibbing, Minn. puts his own tuneful take on the master’s material, fleshing out the raggedy arrangements and conversational sing-speak of Dylan’s own sound with lusher, more melodic settings in the manner of such harmonizing vocalists as Peter Paul & Mary, The Byrds and The Turtles. Besides, Cate Blanchett cut a much more convincing figure as Bobby.
Bobfest had its origins at the old Downtown Café; a bartender noted that it happened to be Dylan’s birthday, and Guadagno came up with a mini-set of Dylan covers. One thing led to another, and soon the Bob Dylan Birthday Party became a yearly affair that alternated between the Downtown and the Long Branch pub The Celtic Cottage, a loose sort of jam that attracted the likes of Blue Oyster Cult’s Don “Buck Dharma” Roeser.
These days Bobfest is a much tighter, more rehearsed presentation, as befits its host venue for the past three years. For the May 19 show, Guadagno and his backing band “Tired Horse” (a unit that includes Mary McCrink, Rich Oddo, Andy McDonough and Phil “Red River” Rizzo, with whom the singer has worked for over 40 years) will perform on the country barn set that’s been designed for A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage (known economically as Mark Twain’s 3M). Last year’s sold-out Bobfest saw Guadagno and company playing in the antique German parlor constructed for Steve Martin’s The Underpants, while the 2006 event, another sellout, had the musicians appearing in an insane asylum the setting for a revival of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.
Tired Horse performed over 30 songs at last year’s Bobfest, from the showstopper “Like a Rolling Stone” to the relatively obscure “Hazel” and “To Make You Feel My Love,” which McCrink sang (and about which Guadagno says “we’ll work on that again”).
“We put the emphasis on the lyrics of Dylan’s songs,” Guadagno says. “I’m a big fan of his lyrics, because I’m not a songwriter.”
Radio DJ Big Joe Henry returns as emcee for the evening, with this year’s show produced by Tom Moog, a former Shore area resident who’s since relocated to Vermont. As has been the case every year for the past five, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Guadagno’s Rock and Roll Music Fund Anthony X. Guadagno Memorial Scholarship, a charitable endowment established in honor of Pat’s late brother (and longtime bass player) Tony.
Tony’s daughter will be on hand at Bobfest to present a check to a representative of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and a scholarship to Berklee will be awarded to a young bassist selected later this spring. Guadagno promises that another brother, Ocean County Superior Court Judge Michael Guadagno, will be attending with his wife, Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno.
It was at last year’s successful Bobfest event that TRT’s artistic director Aaron Posner asked Guadagno if he was interested in being involved with the Twain show. Adapted by Posner from the Twain tale of the same name and developed at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company, it’s a homegrown bit of Americana that utilizes the services of a live bluegrass band.
As Guadagno tells it, “I asked around my own circle, and I threw a bluegrass band together.” In addition to Guadagno, the band includes Bobfest veteran Yuri Turchin on violin, Joe Peterson on bass, and Jack Pyra on piano and accordion.
The score of original songs by Posner and James Sugg will be performed at each of the scheduled performances, from the first preview on Tuesday, May 13 through the final matinee on June 8 with the band’s services even required for a May 20 school show that goes up at the ungodly hour of 10a.
“I’ve got so much music in my head from this play. Learning lyrics at 53 is getting tough,” Guadagno fesses up. “I’m sure that a Teleprompter is not far in the future.”
Still, for Guadagno it’s “an opportunity for me to do something different. This theater thing is a whole new world; people are there just to be entertained; there’s no bar in the room, nobody’s chasing girls.”
Following the conclusion of 3M’s engagement, Guadagno will resume his regular appearances in the bars and restaurants of our fair Shore, and will once again follow his charitable impulses to a July mini-golf tournament in Asbury Park, a benefit for the Joan Dancy and PALS organization.
Tickets for Bobfest 2008 are priced at $30 and can be reserved through the singer’s website. Showtime is 7:30p, with doors opening at 7 and a special lobby bar operated by the folks from Echo. Reservations and further information on the Twain show can be had by settin’ it down right here.