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Blowin' into Bright House field

On the road again, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson are scheduled to roll into Clearwater on May 29.

By ROBERT FARLEY
Published May 1, 2005


CLEARWATER - How's this for a slice of Americana: Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. In a concert at a spring training, minor-league ballpark.

In Clearwater.

News of the May 29 concert at Bright House Networks Field has Dylan worshipers agog. And somewhat bewildered.

Clearwater?

This is a town that has the highest percentage of people 65 and older of any U.S. city with more than 100,000 residents. Dylan and Nelson will be 64 and 72, respectively, come concert time.

But it's still Bob Dylan. The voice of a generation. And Willie Nelson. Both American icons.

The announcement sparked some debate about where this concert would rank in the annals of Clearwater's concert history - its rock 'n' roll history anyway.

There's more to that history than many may think.

And we're not talking just Steppenwolf, the rock band who brought us Born to be Wild and performed recently at Coachman Park. Nor Hootie and the Blowfish, who played here in 1999 (the city also booked the Beach Boys that weekend).

There have been numerous big-time performers who have played Ruth Eckerd Hall. Too many to mention. Willie Nelson among them.

But in the pantheon of Greatest Ever, try this out. It was May 1965. The Rolling Stones played to an estimated 3,000 teenagers at Jack Russell Stadium, former spring training home of the Phillies. They got in only four songs before some 200 raucous youths stormed a line of Clearwater police officers. Apparently there was much throwing of toilet paper. Pandemonium ensued.

"This is it," proclaimed Gary Garretson, then head of the city recreation department. "There will never be another show like this as long as I am here."

But something even more momentous happened that night. Legend has it that Keith Richards awoke in his room at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel, now the Fort Harrison, with the guitar riff to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" in his head. He grabbed his guitar, got the notes on tape and went back to "sleep."

In 1975, legendary American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bo Diddley showed up at Charlie's Place, a Clearwater Beach hangout (now Frenchy's Rockaway Grill), and hopped on stage to jam with a local band.

And in the early 1970s, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Lee Lewis happened to be in town at the same time, and supposedly both got on stage at Rudy's Surfside on Clearwater Beach.

Even Bob Dylan has played here - or near enough. The year was 1976 and Dylan and his band played before a tiny audience in the Belleview Biltmore's Starlight Ballroom. They were filming for an upcoming ABC televised concert. Dylan opted, however, to use a performance from a Colorado concert for the TV special.

And back in the day, the legendary and long-ago closed Clearwater Auditorium on the bluffs was the place in Tampa Bay. Performers included Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and dozens of others at the height of their game.

Sir Monti Rock III's Disco-Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes once played there. The group was part of the disco craze of the mid 1970s, scoring a top 10 record called Get Dancin'. But when they played here, they supposedly were booed off the stage.

So how cool is that?

"Booing Monti Rock off the stage and the Stones writing Satisfaction here, that's our claim to fame," said Bill Daniel, a musician who works in the payroll department for the city of Clearwater.

Still, for many, the upcoming Bob Dylan show will be the city's crowning achievement.

"Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, hot dogs and ballparks. What more can you get?" said Scott Dempster of Indian Shores, bassist for the Headlights, who often performed and toured with former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn, who often toured and performed with Bob Dylan.

Tampa Bay's own folk troubadour Bobby Hicks is just kicking himself.

Hicks found out about the concert recently, but he's committed to performing at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs that weekend.

"That breaks my heart," Hicks said. "God, that kills me. What a treasure Dylan is."

In fact, Hicks credits Dylan for influencing the way he writes songs.

"I don't have a really pretty voice," Hicks said. "And I'm not an accomplished musician. But when I sing, people seem to listen."

That sounds familiar.

"I don't think he (Dylan) is a star fallen from the sky," Hicks said. "I think he's in a stable orbit. I guess you can kind of tell I like Bob Dylan."

Such fanaticism is not uncommon among Dylan fans.

Dylan holds a "messiahlike" quality for him, said Joe Ferrandino, a psychotherapist and University of South Florida professor whom local radio listeners know as "Dr. J," a host of radio station WMNF's The '60s Show.

Ferrandino considers himself "the Dylan man" in Tampa Bay, having followed Dylan passionately for more than 40 years. He boasts what is perhaps the largest collection of Dylan recordings.

"There's no question he was the spokesman for my generation," Ferrandino said.

Here's how he describes Dylan's music: "Hallucinating views of something from a cultural absurdist perspective. He was a musical impressionist."

The upcoming Dylan concert came together when promoters called the Phillies about playing Bright House. The two performers wanted to play a few minor-league ballparks in their tour through Florida.

The plan is to set up the stage in short center field. Together with seats placed on the infield, they can accommodate as many as 8,500 people. The tickets, all general admission, are now on sale.