Michael Weiskopf bristles at the word “tribute.”
Elvis Presley comes to mind. Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and Michael Jackson — and a mob of celebrity impersonators.
But not Bob Dylan — and certainly not Weiskopf’s band, The Complete Unknowns.
“I mean, I’m not Bob Dylan, I don’t want to be Bob Dyl — well, maybe I want to be Bob Dylan on some level,” he said with a laugh. “But I certainly don’t want to convince a crowd of strangers that I’m him. And neither do we as musicians.”
Co-founded 10 years ago by Weiskopf and Randolph Hudson III, The Complete Unknowns cover an iconic repertoire that spans six decades — a career that is still evolving and reinventing itself, while holding true to the music’s universality and championing the underdog. They will play a concert on Friday, September 7, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
“We’re really doing our best to do justice to the songwriter: Dylan,” Hudson said. “Bob Dylan and maybe the Grateful Dead, those two audiences are the ones that would expect nothing to be played the same way twice. So there’s a benefit to that. That gives us some liberty.”
On the surface, some of Dylan’s folk rock appears simple, Hudson said. But after working with it for a decade, he has uncovered deceptive cadences and unexpected chord changes, levels of musical surprise that rival classical compositions, he said — and, as a band, they have found a way to make the music their own.
“It’s music that’s easy to listen to, but also makes you think,” Hudson said. “I first heard Dylan’s music without knowing I was hearing Dylan’s music. I think everybody heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ when it came out and it seemed like a bit of an anthem. Even though I was still pretty young at that particular point, it was interesting to hear a song — even at that age — and understand there’s something going on there.”
A self-described “Dylan freak” for all of his life, Weiskopf grew up on the R&B, Motown and country music that would drift through the transistor radio he kept on at night, broadcasting music from the Midwest and Deep South.
“It was really exotic to hear people speaking in a southern accent under my pillow at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Weiskopf said. “But then Dylan came along and just blew my mind. I thought, like a lot of people, ‘I’d like to do something like that, if I’m gonna play music, and try to say something that goes beyond just your normal pop song.’ And Dylan did that in a way that, in my opinion, nobody else has ever been able to do it.”
Sometimes, The Complete Unknowns will stick to conventional arrangements of Dylan’s music — “but that’s boring,” Weiskopf said. More often than not, they’ll channel their inner Dylan, and give the audience something they wouldn’t anticipate.
“When you go to a Dylan show, sometimes he’ll be halfway through a song before it’s recognizable. Sometimes it’s totally unrecognizable,” Weiskopf said. “He has made a career out of giving his admirers what they don’t expect and, frequently, what they don’t want, and making them very angry with him.
“When he picked up an electric guitar for the first time, people said his career was going to be over because his fans reacted so violently,” he continued. “I mean, they were angry. They booed him every night, they walked out on his shows. And he just didn’t care. He just kept pressing on and doing what he was doing.”
The Complete Unknowns — featuring Michael Weiskopf, Randolph Hudson III, Klyph Black, Stuart Sherman, Taka Shimizu, James Benard, Alex Sarkis and Lauren Matzen, with special guests Martha Mooke, Wendy Caplan and Damian Sanchez — will perform on Friday, September 7, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $25. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.