Every year for the last 20 years, Bob Dylan fans have gotten together in Austria to celebrate his life and his music. This year, the festival took place at a castle in Lower Austria known as Burg Plankenstein. The castle is situated at the top of a hill and the views to the valleys below from its various windows are breathtakingly beautiful. My favorite lookouts were the oval windows in the castle's amazing spiral staircase which I had to climb more times than I care to remember during the course of the weekend.
I would never have even heard about this festival except that in February I joined a band that plays Dylan music and the band leader, Robert Koehler, has been organizing the festival since 1992. The band, Johnny's In The Basement, was one of three scheduled musical events during the weekend and we spent the last three months getting ready for the performance.
The drive to the castle took about two hours from my home. The weather was gorgeous - with that clear kind of light that follows rain and is good for taking photos. There were high cumulus clouds amidst patches of blue sky and so many beautiful landscapes along the way that it was hard to keep my eyes on the road. Usually I go places with my family, so it felt a little scary/strange to go somewhere alone to be with people I don't know, but I found the beautiful weather reassuring.
I arrived at noon and managed to get one of the last parking spaces inside the castle walls. Most of the festers had arrived the day before and had already been partying long and hard during the night and into the early hours of the morning - watching videos of clips from various concerts over the years of Dylan's career (similar to the JMDL videos produced by Sherrie Good and Barbara Burst), and dancing to his music. I ascended the stairs into the castle's inner courtyard and was greeted by Robert, who looked pretty cheerful for having partied until 5 a.m. Robert introduced me to the castle's owner, Peter, who assigned me a room on the second floor, and I gratefully accepted Robert's offer to help me carry my things up the long spiral staircase - imagine that each floor is about 20 feet high, so it was an ascent of 40 feet.
The owner of the castle is a well-preserved 70 years old and hopes to live another 20 years. I told him if he had to climb that staircase more than once every day, he probably would get his wish. He speaks 5 languages: English, German, Polish, French and Italian and wants to learn Turkish next. He said one can never learn enough languages.
The castle is truly an amazing place, with many unusual rooms. Peter purchased it as a ruin 24 years ago and spent two years working night and day to get it to the point where he could offer lodging and meals to visitors, but the renovation work is still an ongoing task. Many esoteric groups use the castle as a venue for their seminars and the Bob Dylan festival has been held there since 1992. I've been wondering if it might be a good venue for an international Jonifest someday - Robert could probably give me a lot of advice about the planning of such an event.
After I unpacked my things, I returned to the courtyard for lunch. It was very nice to sit there in the sunshine, listening to live music from three guitarists who were playing and singing Dylan's songs. One Italian man, Peter Del Bello, who is a member of the other featured band called Who Cares, had a harmonica in every key and did some beautiful accompaniment for the songs.
After lunch, some vendors set up their tables with wares which included CDs, videos and various publications. I bought a recording of a song Dylan had played at the Vienna concert called Boots Of Spanish Leather. The way he sang it in Vienna was so beautiful and moving that it brought me to tears and I've been wanting to learn the song ever since.
Around 2 p.m., I moved over to the group of musicians so that I could hear them better and join in the harmonizing occasionally. A little after that a man and woman arrived - the man with a classical guitar in tow - and joined the group of musicians jamming in the courtyard. I wondered if he might be the classical guitarist scheduled to perform later in the afternoon. He joined right in with the other musicians, getting sounds out of his guitar that fans of Joni's music would have loved. It's possible to make beautiful sounds on a guitar in standard tuning, but you really have to stretch your fingers, which he was definitely doing. It turned out that he was indeed Saturday evening's Italian musical attraction, Luigi Catuogno. He and his Argentinian wife, Fernanda Morosini, play Italian folk-style and traditional music professionally near Bologna, Italy. Fernanda has a very strong and beautiful voice and did a great version of One More Cup Of Coffee during the jam session that brought enthusiastic applause from the listeners. She is a natural performer - extroverted and uninhibited as well as very affectionate.
Luigi's evening performance was in a long rectangular upstairs room. The entrance from inside the castle was on one side of the room and there was a door at the back leading out to an escarpment overlooking the valleys below. The room had windows all along the wall facing the side door, tapestries hanging on the remaining walls, and a wooden floor. There were seats for about fifty people, so there were quite a few people standing (more than 100 people attended the festival this year). Luigi has been a Dylan fan for a long time and introduced himself by saying that, although Dylan's words are very beautiful, he also finds a lot of beauty in the melodies alone and so had spent much time working out instrumental arrangements of some of his favorite Dylan songs which he hoped we would enjoy. Luigi's performance lasted about an hour and the audience was completely attentive and very appreciative of each of his beautiful arrangements. My favorite was an arrangement of the song Blind Willie McTell. For his encore, Luigi invited Fernanda to join him and they performed some of the songs they do professionally, which included Fernanda dancing to a Tarantella and singing a 17th century folk song. After the performance, Luigi handed out free copies of a home-made CD with some of the songs from his Dylan setlist. I was really happy to see that the CD included Blind Willie McTell, because I wanted to learn to play it.
After Luigi's concert, the festers descended the spiral staircase to the Dylan video room and patiently listened to a very intellectual and long-winded one-and-a-half hour presentation by a Swiss man named Martin Schaefer on the topic of "What is Dylanism?" I found the lecture very exhausting because (1) it was in German, which could have been mostly okay for me except that (2) it was extremely intellectual, and (3) it included references to modern writers with whom I am not familiar. Fortunately there were a few parts where interesting English quotations (from Dylan himself and others who wrote about him in English) were given and so I suppose it was worth sitting there just to hear some of these, but I felt very relieved when the lecture was finished. I had never imagined that Dylan fans would enjoy listening to something like this and was amazed that the speaker was so enthusiastically applauded at the end of his long lecture. Perhaps my discomfort was increased because, unlike the earlier musical performance where smoking was not allowed, it seemed to me like everyone in the room was smoking and I was finding it hard to breathe. Fortunately, someone opened a window briefly which added a little relief. The speaker ended his lecture by saying we could take a ten-minute break and then return for discussion (yeah, right). I did ask a woman at my table what his conclusion was. She said he didn't really have a conclusion, but had mentioned that Dylan was always true to his feelings and that the speaker had at one point compared Dylan to the Austrian poet, Peter Handke, who is very unpopular in the world because he expresses his feelings of support for Naziism and the oppressive Serbian government. I replied that I didn't think Dylan could ever be called "right-wing", whereas it sounded like this modern poet was extremely right-wing. I felt totally turned off to the speaker after talking to this woman - as though he had used the forum to insidiously express a relationship between Dylan and this other writer which does not exist - but perhaps this was just one aspect of the whole lecture (she did say she didn't think the speaker agreed with the views of the modern poet). In any case, I was mentally exhausted, so I high-tailed it out of there.
I spent the next half hour in my room recovering from the smoke and the mental overload by playing my guitar. This made me feel a whole lot better. I was starting to feel a little hungry and a little cold - night had fallen and my room was quite cool and a little drafty - so I decided to see if dinner was ready yet and descended the long spiral staircase all the way to the cellar. Everyone was enjoying an amazing grilled steak and grilled trout dinner which the chef was preparing for all to see on the cellar's ancient open hearth. It was blessedly warm down there - so I warmed up my hands in front of the fire and grabbed a plate of grilled trout and salad. There were no seats left at the tables in the cellar so I went upstairs to the Dylan video room (which had been thankfully completely aired out) and was pleased find Robert there with Sixt Pokorny, our bass player, who had just arrived with a Czech friend and his son. Somehow it was very comforting to eat my dinner among my band friends.
By the time dinner had ended (10:30 p.m.), it was really too late to set up the equipment for the open mike session. No one was in the mood to do it, which was totally understandable (setting up equipment and doing the sound checks for both bands took at least two hours on Sunday afternoon!). I felt a little disappointed that there wouldn't be an open mike session, but then one of the musicians who had been jamming earlier approached me and asked if I felt like jamming with them in the room with the open hearth and I said "Sure - that would be great!" So I went upstairs again to my cold room and got my guitar. It was wonderful to sit in the room by the warm hearth and play music for the next two and a half hours. It was entirely Dylan music, though - NJC - except I did play an arrangement I had done of the song Jokerman in a Joni tuning, and I introduced the song as "Here's Jokerman in Joni Mitchell style". Everyone seemed to really like it, which pleased me very much. The jam session featured each of the musicians: In addition to Jokerman, I did Mr. Tambourine and Michael Hedges' arrangement of All Along The Watchtower, Luigi played some of his classical arrangements, Fernanda sang One More Cup of Coffee, Forever Young and a couple of other tunes, a guy from Stuttgart sang a beautiful version of Love Minus Zero/No Limit and a couple of really funny songs - he was very entertaining - and then Peter Del Bello, the Italian man with all the harmonicas, did some songs. I felt like such a newbie in many ways, because Dylan has such an incredible body of work and I'm familiar with only a very small fraction of it - so for most of the evening I just played along, trying to follow the chords that the other guitarists were playing. It was really great fun - as much fun as I had playing music at the Pittsburgh and Boston Jonifests. There's something really wonderful about sharing music with other people.
Around about 1:45 a.m. I was really starting to fade, so I said goodnight to everyone and ascended the three spiral staircase flights from the cellar to my room. It was very cold - maybe especially so because of the contrast of having been in the room with the hearth. I climbed into bed with all of my clothes on, including my sweater and pulled the covers up over my head. But I was so jazzed that I couldn't fall asleep, so I did some preparations for the Sunday evening performance to try to wind down and finally fell asleep around 2:45.
Considering how late it was when I went to sleep, I awoke pretty early on Sunday morning (around 8:00 a.m.). I showered, had breakfast with Sixt, then returned to my room and played my guitar for about an hour. Fernanda, hearing me playing my guitar in my room, knocked on my door and insisted that I join her in the common room just outside for a jam session. We spent at least two hours making music together and it was great fun. I played some Joni songs for her and she played me some Argentinian songs. She taught me a song in Spanish that her grandmother used to sing to her and I taught her one of my favorite modern American folk songs that has especially beautiful harmonies. Luigi joined us just before lunch and generously taught me some of the basic chords to blind Willie McTell, but it's going to be awhile before I will be able to even approximate his beautiful playing. Getting to know Fernanda and Luigi was one of the highlights of the weekend for me.
On both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I spent a little time in the video room watching some clips of Dylan in concert. The most amazing one I saw was of him singing It's Alright Ma - the pace of the song and the intensity of his delivery were incredible. I tried to find out later if the video was commercially available, but it was from someone's private collection.
At around 3:30 p.m., I joined Robert, Sixt and Hermann (our lead guitarist) in the hall in the cellar where the bands were to play in the evening. The members of the Who Cares band had already set up most of the equipment and were starting their sound checks which lasted for the next two hours. It was interesting to be there, but it was so cold that I went upstairs and got a blanket from my room so that I could stay warm. Our drummer, Micki, arrived just before 5:30 p.m. when we started our sound check. Fortunately our sound check didn't take very long and we were done by 6:15.
I decided to skip the common dinner and returned to my room where I enjoyed some Hungarian salami with a garlicky cream cheese and fresh strawberries that I had bought at a little store in the village below the day before. It was a perfect meal. I rested until around 8 p.m., then went downstairs to see what was happening. When I got to the hall, people had already taken places in the audience and Robert was on stage playing some licks on his guitar. I was starting to feel excited about the upcoming performance. Robert finished around 8:15 and Robert, Sixt, Hermann, Micki and I had a last-minute discussion about our setlist.
We began our set at 8:30 with Robert's version of Jokerman. All together we did 16 songs, including one song by Neil Young and a solo I did on guitar of the only Joni Mitchell song that Dylan ever recorded - Big Yellow Taxi. I also performed the song All Along The Watchtower which I did with the chords and tuning of Michael Hedges on rhythm guitar, accompanied by bass guitar, drums and lead guitar. For the rest of the songs, I played keyboard and sang some harmonies occasionally. One of the members of the other band had set up a mini-disc recorder, so I'm pretty sure our whole set was recorded - it's just a matter of time until we can get a copy for our band. My favorite songs performed by the band were Jokerman, Ballad Of A Thin Man, What Was It You Wanted and Rita May - they were just really fun to play along with and I really enjoyed being part of the process. Our set lasted about one and a half hours and the audience seemed to like us, which was gratifying.
At around 10:15, the band Who Cares started their set. They were really tight and the lead singer, Roman, was very intense and Dylan-like in his delivery. I really enjoyed their playing very much and so did the crowd - many people were dancing in front of the stage area as if they were at a Dylan concert or something. I wish I was more familiar with Dylan's music so that I could tell you what songs they played, but most of the songs were ones I had never heard before. For two of their songs, they invited an accordion player from Vienna to join them on the stage and he was great! Just before midnight, the poet Steven Scobie (who had given a lecture in the afternoon which I missed because of the sound check) took the microphone and started counting down - ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one - and everyone in the crowd yelled "Happy Birthday, Bob!" That was the first time I realized that the 24th of May was Bob Dylan's birthday and part of the reason why everyone was celebrating.
After the bands were finished playing, the Dylan disco started up again, and an older woman (she must have been at least 60) who had been dancing to the band, continued her dancing at the disco. Watching her, I hoped I would be like that when I reach 60! Luigi and Fernanda were passing out some sweet Italian red dessert wine to various people and we all toasted each other. It was all very nice - the music, the people, the location. I felt like I had found another community to which I could/did belong.
I think another musical jam session occurred in the room with the hearth and I had wanted to join in, but I made the mistake of lying down in my room for a few minutes after taking up the last of my equipment and fell easily and deeply asleep without reawakening until 6 a.m. I guess the one little glass of sweet wine had made me sleepy. I made my way downstairs for breakfast and ran into Hermann who had stayed up all night drinking and partying. We had breakfast together and then I headed home around 8 a.m.
It was really one of the most enjoyable weekends I have ever had in my entire life and I hope to attend again next year.
Marian Russell, Vienna, Austria