29 October 2016
Bob Dylan likes WorkPlay.
How do we know? He told owner Tom Williams so on Friday, during a video shoot at the venue's theater.
Dylan, 75, one of the most famous names in the rock world, spent about four hours at the Birmingham entertainment complex, filming a video to commemorate Tony Bennett's 90th birthday.
According to Williams, the video will be part of an NBC TV special, "Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come." The two-hour show, which airs Dec. 20, also includes performances by Aretha Franklin, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and other celebrities.
Dylan couldn't attend the actual celebration, which was filmed Sept. 15 at Radio City Music Hall. However, Williams said, Dylan wanted to mark the occasion with a song. That's the tune he performed and filmed with his band at WorkPlay, with a technical crew and gear brought in for the occasion.
Williams said he watched Dylan's sound check on Friday, but declined to name the song chosen for the filming, citing the artist's desire to keep it under wraps until the show airs.
Dylan, a notoriously private singer-songwriter, didn't allow outside cameras at the shoot, including cell phones. (Sorry, folks, no selfies!) Williams said, however, that Dylan was extremely cordial during his visit and complimented the facilities at WorkPlay.
"He was coming around the corner, and the security man said, 'There's the owner,'" Williams said. "He approached me. We talked for about three minutes, about WorkPlay and the studios. I told him we could record a live show here. He said, 'Great place, great place.' ... Afterward, as he was finishing up and coming back through, he said 'Tom, you have a really nice place,' and put his hand out."
Although these encounters were brief, Williams has exchanged more words with Dylan than most people ever will. The star, a recent Nobel laureate, has a reputation for being tight-lipped on the concert trail, with fans, reporters and promoters alike.
"He was super-nice," Williams said. "They had one rule: No cell phones, no cameras in the air while he's in the building. They just said, 'Give him his space and no cameras.'"
Dylan, who's touring to promote his new album, "Fallen Angels," stopped in Birmingham on the way to Huntsville, where he'll perform tonight at the Von Braun Center Concert Hall. The tour brings him back to Birmingham on Nov. 15 for a show at the BJCC Concert Hall. After that, he's set to play on Nov. 16 at the Saenger Theatre in Mobile.
Williams said Dylan's team contacted WorkPlay about two months ago, asking about the possibility of a rental for the video shoot. The connection came through the venue's sound engineer and production manager, Davy Moire.
Williams said his initial reaction was, "Of course we can do this! Whatever it takes."
WorkPlay has seen its share of stars over the years, from Jack White to the Drive-By Truckers, and the venue hosted a video shoot for Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters in 2014. An appearance from Dylan, however, would be an important milestone.
Secrecy was crucial, lest the public invade the venue hoping for glimpse of the iconic musician. Only four or five people at WorkPlay, including general manager Joe Benintende and Williams' wife, Courtney Williams, knew about Dylan's visit in advance. If word leaked before the the shoot, that would be a deal-breaker, Williams said.
"It was tough, but not too tough, (to keep the secret) because we didn't want it to get out," Williams said. "And we didn't want to lose it."
Much of the initial discussion with Dylan's team involved the precise location of the shoot — WorkPlay has a theater, a soundstage, recording studios, office space and more — and the theater finally won the day.
A crew arrived on Thursday to ready the theater, Williams said, and the workers brought a substantial amount of equipment, including set design elements and the analog sound gear Dylan prefers.
"Our preparation was to make sure the room was clean and the sound was right," Williams said. "We really wanted to impress the crew. They used our soundboard, but I'd say they used about 80 percent of their own equipment. It was a huge production."
WorkPlay also contacted a local caterer, Jason Marchant of BYOB restaurant in Lakeview, arranging food for Dylan's team on Thursday and Friday. After the shoot, at Courtney Williams' suggestion, the leftovers were donated to Brother Bryan Mission in Birmingham.
The famed artist arrived around 2 p.m. on Friday, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, and later changed into a suit for the video. Williams said Dylan wore tuxedo pants and a white shirt, and "had his hair up." A makeup artist was on scene, as well.
Williams said excitement was running high at WorkPlay while Dylan was on scene, but everyone present made sure to keep things cool. Although he knew better than to ask for a photo with Dylan, Williams admits that he was tempted.
"I came so close to asking him," Williams said. "I'm a singer-songwriter fan; Bob Dylan and John Prine and Willie Nelson, they're my thing. It was an honor to have a professional musician and Nobel Prize winner come to WorkPlay and record a song."
Williams wouldn't say much about Dylan's performance, or any birthday message the singer might have filmed for Bennett. But he described the video shoot as professional and smooth, and said everyone involved was friendly. Dylan explored the WorkPlay complex a bit during his stay, and even acknowledged the resident dog, Cheetos.
After the filming ended, Williams opened WorkPlay's bar to the visiting crew. Dylan left the venue around 6 p.m., he said, and social media immediately became fair game.
"When I could see the taillights of the bus, I hit Facebook," Williams said. "It was a great day for WorkPlay and for the city."