If memory serves – a dubious proposition at my age – the first Billings musician I ever heard was Dan Page.
It was, to further test my fading memory, his final show at Casey’s Golden Pheasant, some 20 years ago, before he headed west to seek his fortune on the Pacific Coast. Gazette colleague Ed Kemmick invited me to go along, promising me that Page played great versions of Bob Dylan songs.
But Page was working pretty hard on his own material at the time, and although I heard him play a few Bob Dylan songs then and later when he returned to Billings, I never quite bought Page as a Dylan interpreter.
I never quite gave it up, either. I heard him give a brilliant rendition of “Blind Willie McTell” one night at the Den, and there was the unquestioned fact that Kemmick knows a lot more about music than I do. On the other hand, I know more about Bob Dylan than Kemmick does, so I stayed skeptical.
Last Wednesday night, Page silenced this skeptic. He played two solid sets of nothing but Dylan songs at Bones Brewing, and he made a believer out of me.
He has in some respects the perfect voice for Dylan, a claim that some people might term an insult. But I mean it in the best possible way: Page’s voice sounds naturally enough like Dylan’s at a fairly early stage of his career that he evokes the feel of the original without sounding like he’s imitating it.
Only on “Forever Young,” I told him later, did it sound a bit like he was imitating Dylan from the “Planet Waves” period. Slipping into a Dylan imitation, he acknowledged, is a hard thing to avoid.
As for the music, it was just about unbeatable. The harmonica sounded perfectly Dylanesque, and Mr. Page’s hard-driving acoustic guitar brought out the best in Dylan’s ballads and protest songs. Despite an injured finger, he finger-picked his way through “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and he even pounded out a credible acoustic version of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Steve Brown joined in on electric guitar for part of the second set, adding a rock edge to two songs that can stand it: “Maggie’s Farm” and “All Along the Watchtower,” which not even Dylan could play the same way again after hearing Jimi Hendrix’s electric version.
And boy, what a set list. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “She Belongs to Me” (the only song he repeated in the second set), “The Times They Are A’Changing” (Dylan’s third-best known song, he said, after “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowing in the Wind“), “All I Really Want to Do,” “Tangled Up in Blues,” “If Not for You,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” another splendid rendition of the great “Blind Willie McTell,” even the countrified “Wallflower.” It was everything I could want to hear in a Dylan concert, except maybe for another 50 or 60 songs I like just as well.
I sat there in Bones drinking a beer somebody else paid for, watching baseball replays on television and listening to Mr. Page. The three B’s, I thought: beer, baseball and Bob. How could life possibly get any better?
It couldn’t, and if Dan Page ever decides to repeat his Dylan show, you will find me sitting there, sipping quietly, thinking about balls and strikes.