The tours they are a-changin’
The tours they are a-changin’
Green Bay guitar tech Jason Berken details his latest and strangest on the road experience with music legend Bob Dylan
By Matty Day
“Yeah…this was kind of a weird one,” Jason Berken said, sitting on his couch recounting his recent on-the-road experience as a guitar technician for legendary musician Bob Dylan.
After 20 disrupted and fragmented months within the live music industry, Berken, a Green Bay native and Dylan’s personal guitar and backline technician since 2012, recently got home from a 21-day tour that kicked off in Milwaukee and ended in Washington D.C. Between the safety measures and simply getting back into the rhythm of the road, Berken said his tourmates and he felt this past was an odd one, given the circumstances. Still, their collective effort would make it work. Audiences were regaled night after night by Dylan and his band’s tirelessly reworked repertoire.
“Some nights you could tell that people were really enthusiastic,” Berken said. “There was more interaction (between the crowds and Dylan). The ones that were louder, I felt were louder than usual.”
Unusual as the tour may have been, Berken said it was a success—not just musically, but also in its safety management, as the musicians and crew remained free from COVID-19, a reality thought to be long gone this time last year.
Rough and rowdy days
In early 2020, Berken was accompanying Dylan in a Los Angeles recording studio. He was there to set up equipment and stand by for any issues his expertise could address. At the time, the musicians and crew were aware of the mysterious coronavirus seemingly poised to hit the United States. Recording continued as planned and finished comfortably before any outbreak. The sessions would yield Dylan’s 39th studio album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
The record was slated for a summer 2020 release—eight years since Dylan’s last release of original material, and the longest wait his fans had ever endured. The hype was considerable, with many looking to Dylan’s reliably oblique social commentary to furnish some sense from the politically intense and confusing recent years.
In anticipation of the album’s release, an April 2020 Japan tour had been booked and would be followed by a US tour. These were to be the next legs of Dylan’s famous Never Ending Tour, which kicked off in 1988 and has run for over 3,000 concerts.
The COVID-19 pandemic laid waste to many touring musicians’ plans and managed to end the supposed never-ending tour.
The Japan jaunt was canceled in March 2020. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” was still released that June—with some of its album art proving eerily timely—but its accompanying US tour dates were summarily canceled as well. Berken said he could only watch helplessly while his exceptional career threatened to evaporate.
Before becoming Dylan’s stage-left handyman he worked for Lucinda Williams, Alanis Morissette, Dashboard Confessional and the Eels. His commitment to professionalism and dependability have landed him in charge of making sure no errors befall a certain Nobel Prize-, Golden Globe-, Academy Award- and 11-time Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer on stage or in the studio.
But what would this professional problem solver do if a real catastrophe hit? Say, a novel coronavirus setting off a global pandemic?
“I’m not a tour manager, thankfully,” Berken said. “I’m a guitar tech.”
Soberly forced to contemplate the future of his high-profile gig, Berken said his foremost concerns were with his family.
“The hardest part of my job is leaving for months at a time, Berken said. “The fact that I was going to be home to take care of my wife and children and my parents, I was relieved.”
Berken said he appreciated that the decision to cancel tours was out of his hands, sparing him from having to make any difficult decisions pitting his career against his conscience.
Berken said he relished the unprecedented chance to spend extensive time with his family while getting to catch up on projects like rewiring some old amplifiers. But as 2020 plodded into 2021, the concert tour circuit remained shorted.
Bob Dylan turned 80 this year, leading anyone to reasonably wonder how much longer he’d want to bear the rigors of the road. With the COVID-19 pandemic barreling through the globe, there was a genuine possibility that regardless of anyone’s desires, live music and world tours may no longer be traditionally possible.
But, with the increased vaccine availability and safety precautions in place, live music was back.
Berken said it was hard for him to feel confident that tours would happen when he got the official word from Dylan’s tour manager regarding a string of US concerts finalized for November and December.
Berken said it began to feel more real when he was introduced to a litany of safety protocols: mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for the musicians and crew, constant mask-wearing, testing for the virus at each new city (every one to three days), and discouraging any unnecessary venturing out.
In other words, be safe and be smart, lest you be known as the person who gave Bob Dylan coronavirus.
Though his COVID-19 concerns were quelled enough by these policies, Berken’s next challenge was to uproot from what had been, by far, his longest stretch at home since his children were born.
Berken said daily video chats had always helped but this time the physical distance would hit a bit harder.
“The amount of sacrifice you make when you leave your home, it’s tough,” Berken said. “It’s exciting at first when you’re younger, but now it’s like, ‘huh, I have kids.’ Your family’s always first, of course. But for someone like Bob Dylan, is it more worth it because you’re making a sacrifice for something so unique? When it’s for something that’s bigger than you? I feel that every time I’m out there.”
Oftentimes, his wife will remind him of his unique career and the rare opportunity he has.
“My wife will remind me sometimes,” Berken said, ‘You know you work for Bob Dylan, right?’”
Unfortunately, his concerns around the COVID-19 virus on the road, illness hit home while he was out on tour.
Berken said his wife and children contracted the virus while he was on the road and have since made a healthy recovery.
“I felt terrible that (my wife) had to quarantine on her own with the kids and I wasn’t there to help,” Berken said, whose wife is a teacher. “She’s around 15 people regularly, I’m around thousands, and then she gets (covid) and I don’t. How does that happen?”
Berken said his crew and him approached this tour with cautious optimism—perhaps skewing more heavily to caution than optimism—and he credits all involved for pulling it off safely and smoothly.
Berken’s efforts hardly went unnoticed. Berken said at the end of the tour, the ever-enigmatic Dylan, who mostly keeps to himself, approached him to thank him for everything alongside a farewell first-bump.
Local music fans will get a chance to see Berken perform as part of The Snowbirds on Friday, Dec. 17 at the Zambaldi Beer taproom (1649 S Webster Ave). If you ask nicely, maybe he’ll share some road stories we couldn’t print.
Matty Day has been a gigging musician for 15 years, performing with Cory Chisel, Muddy Udders, the Foamers?, the Priggs, J-Council and more. Jason Berken has bailed him out of instrument emergencies twice (and counting). You can reach Matty via email at [email protected], on Twitter @pollutedmindset or on his website matthewtday.com.