Sunday, May 14, 2023

Jeff Slate, Revisited -- Celebrating Dylan and More

I first interviewed Jeff Slate in the spring of 2019. Minnesota Dylan fans were still on a high regarding the release of Dylan's More Blood More Tracks, Volume 14 in the Bootleg Series, of which Slate wrote the extensive liner notes that accompanied this set. His considerable writing credits include work in such high-profile publications as The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Rolling Stone. 

One gets the impression that his real joy comes from performing as a New York City-based musician. This coming Friday Jeff Slate and friends will be be celebrating Bob Dylan's 82 birthday at Hill Country Live! on 30 West 26th Street in the Big Apple. I suspect it will be another night to remember, with classic Dylan along with the deep cuts Slate likes to bring to the foreground. 

He'll then take it to the road, joining in on some of the action here during Duluth Dylan Fest, including a May 25 evening at Sacred Heart where he'll be joined by Mark Bosch. That particular event will open with Paul Metsa and Sonny Earl. (Details below)

EN: The last time we spoke was in 2019. A LOT has happened since that time including the pandemic as well as the opening of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. How did the pandemic impact you? Did you do more writing because performing venues were on hold?

Jeff Slate: Like everyone, I was hugely affected by the pandemic. And as a musician, I was out of work, at least until outdoor shows returned, midway through. In the meantime, I did about 50 online concerts, and recorded and released them. In fact, it was a 2-disc set, and the second disc was all Dylan covers. I also wrote and recorded a new album, The Last Day of Summer, which will be out later this year, with a bunch of my musician friends who were also sitting around with nothing to do. We then finished it up in person once the pandemic had eased up and everyone was vaccinated. I was also able to write about music, including some pieces about the effects on the industry with people like Jeff Tweedy, Jon Batiste and Brandi Carlile.
EN: What impressed you most about what you saw at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa? 

JS: Wow, that's a hard one. I suppose the handwritten lyrics are the most special to me, as are little things like Dylan's 60s address book. But I think what impressed me most was the sheer volume and scale of what's there. We knew Dylan worked a lot and worked hard throughout his career, but seeing the breadth of that in real terms -- in all the many items they have from across his 60-plus year career -- really brought that home.

EN: You've had the privilege of getting to know quite a few important names in the music industry. Did you say that it was a chance meeting with Ringo of the Beatles that opened those doors? How did that come about? 

JS: I've had very good luck throughout my life and career of meeting good people -- and the right people, I guess -- at the right time. I met Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols when I was a teenager, and he named my first professional band. I met Pete Townshend in the early 90s and he and his brother Simon helped produce some recordings for me that helped launch me to a wider audience. But when the business changed in the mid 00s, and I had young children at home, I turned to writing about music to supplement my income. I had a pretty formidable Rolodex, and through Pete I had met Zak Starkey, Ringo's son, who drums for The Who. I had met Ringo through him a few times, so I was able to connect early on in my writing career. Once I'd interviewed him for Esquire, things really started to happen.

EN: You're performing at a May 19 Bob Dylan Birthday Bash in New York before joining us in Duluth. Is this a traditional event you've been part of or something new? Who's on the slate for that one? 

JS: We've been doing a birthday show here for nearly a decade. It started out as a show called Dylan Obscura, in which we'd do only songs that were deep cuts, or that Dylan hadn't played live in forever, or that he'd never even recorded. That morphed into a much broader themed show that celebrates his artistry and entire legacy. The band is great -- Mark Bosch from Mott the Hoople on guitar, who will be with me in Duluth, Johnny Pisano from Dylan's friend Willie Nile's band -- and we invite some of our favorite performers to do a few songs. It's about a three hour show, but honestly, with all the great songs to choose from, we could go on much longer.

EN: Who are the nicest people in show business that you've worked with or interviewed? 

JS: I know they say don't meet your heroes, but that simply hasn't been my experience. Obviously, everyone has their bad days, but even then you can tell that's all it is. If that's the case, and you're genuinely interested and sincere, more often than not they loosen up and enjoy the moment with you. So, there have been one or two memorable run-ins with stars I just didn't like, personally, but by and large everyone I've crossed paths with has been exceedingly gracious and kind.

EN: When Dylan wrote "Political World" he also wrote "Everything's Broken." Both songs were featured on Oh Mercy. What's the relationship between music and politics in your career? 

(George, Paul, John and Ringo each went different directions on that rocky divide.) My first band were influenced by The Beatles and The Who and The Kinks and the Small Faces. But we soon discovered The Clash and The Jam, and that really changed the equation for me. John Lennon and Joe Strummer and Paul Weller and Bob Marley were each revolutionaries at heart, even though they were also pop stars. They didn't check their intellect or politics at the door, nor did they resort to dumbing things down to appeal to a broader audience. So, that's always been my model. Not to be that famous, necessarily, but to be true to myself and be honest about my feelings about the world, both in interviews and in my music. In the 00s that was probably less obvious, but during those lockdown shows I mentioned I spoke openly about my view of the world and even raised money for social justice causes that I thought were crucial to bettering the world around us. As always, whenever I opened my mouth, I'd get some hate mail. But the overwhelming response was remarkably supportive. Even the people who didn't 100% agree with me told me how much they appreciated my openness and honesty. Given the political climate we're all living in that was incredibly heartwarming.
EN: Bob Dylan's relationship with George Harrison seems to have been pretty special. What have you learned from writing about George that the average person might not know? 

JS: George really was a dark horse, as he called himself. He was open and inquisitive and funny but also didn't suffer fools. He was both Yin and Yang. He also, even among the other Beatles, grew incredibly over the course of his career and life. I guess that's obvious to most people, but I don't think it's appreciated enough because, as a Beatle, it was almost expected.

* * * 

Join us May 25 at Sacred Heart for An 
Evening with Jeff Slate

with Paul Metsa & Sonny Earl Opening
Sacred Heart Music Center
201 West Fourth Street, Duluth
7:00-9:00 PM | Tickets $15 in advance at Eventbrite

You can follow Jeff at

See the full Duluth Dylan Fest schedule here at

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