Rocking on the rails at the Duluth Dylan Fest

Put the legend of Bob Dylan, four bands and 200 drunken hipsters on a train rumbling through the foggy Minnesota north country and you have one heckuva rock & roll song.

Each May, Duluth music fans organize the Duluth Dylan Fest, a birthday celebration for the world’s greatest songwriter and reluctant native son Bob Dylan. This year the event featured the release of a new Duluth Does Dylan cover CD, a plaque installation outside Bob’s childhood home, a bus tour to Hibbing, poetry readings and a museum exhibit of handwritten lyrics, rare photographs and other Dylan ephemera.

But the loudest, rowdiest and most unhinged event is the Blood on the Tracks Express.

The Blood on the Track Express is a 27-mile ride aboard a historic train from Duluth to Two Harbors, Minnesota, and back. Riders dance, drink and hang out the windows while bands at opposite ends of the train perform on makeshift stages under dim lights and bouncing floors.

“I have to get my surf legs,” said singer and guitarist Erik Koskinen as the train pulled out of the downtown Duluth rail station. “Can you all see out the windows? I’ll be your tour guide: On your left is the Big Lake on your right is… a wall.”

Dressed in a black jacket and wearing a cowboy hat, Koskinen played original and vintage country music with a plugged-in, three-piece backing band. Their version of “Mystery Train” was a perfect soundtrack for rolling through the misty woods and over the rocky creeks of the north shore.

The string band Feeding Leroy, entertained the crowded bar car with a their freewheeling versions of traditional folk and Americana tunes.

The crowd was a mix of young partiers who could call Dylan grandpa, music fans with a copy of “Blood on the Tracks” in their collection and a handful of well-dressed VIPs that bought a lanyard for access to the “Million Dollar Bash Car.”

Track delays on the northbound trip ment the train was stopped almost as much as it was moving. This is bad. A train is only cool when it’s moving. When it’s stopped cars feel like jail and people do crazy things. Finally arriving at the historic Two Harbors station, a thick fog swallowed the huge iron ore loading docks just a couple hundred yards away.

“Where is Lake Superior?” asked a rider.

“Over there, behind the fog,” said another.

The Boomchucks performed danceable Dylan covers under the arched wooden roof of the spacious American Legion Club. Riders enjoyed a $2 taco bar and loaded up on Jello shots sold by two women in curly-haired wigs. Hockey and basketball playoffs were on TV.

The ride back to Duluth only got louder.

Laura Sellner’s Superior Siren, a group featuring a cello player and orchestral bass,  played a haunting and dark version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in the bar car. The weight of the song crackled over cheap speakers in the adjacent “70s car,” a car so-named for its turquoise leather seats and chrome walls.

A band called 4onthefloor ignited a bomb at other end of the train. The group yelled original songs and stomping blues covers of Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam. Bearded lead singer Gabe Douglas climbed on an overhead ceiling pole like it was a backyard jungle gym and hoisted a medieval beer stein during a sing along chorus for “On Tuesdays.”

A young man leaned out a window trying to grab tree branches passing slowly in the night. Blinking crossing signs occasionally lit up the boxcar in bright red color.

Somewhere after midnight, The Blood on the Tracks Express crawled into its downtown Duluth station.

The 4onthefloor set came to a crashing end.

Fans wanted more.

“All right, we’re done,” said Douglas. “This is what happens when trains stop.”

And just like Baby Blue, it was over.

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