What About Bob?

"I laughed so hard I almost threw up my lunch": Martin Devaney
Tony Nelson

The Purple Onion never really changes. Inside the Dinkytown hippie hangout, it's always a good year for patchouli. Things look as if the revolution wasn't televised and brought to you by Coke 15 years ago. It's possible that Bob Dylan could still be hiding in here somewhere. In fact, I'm here in the Onion because I'm supposed to be meeting local singer/songwriter Martin Devaney--who, like countless others before him, has been called the "new Dylan." I've never met Devaney before, but having ruled out hemp boy, cranky middle-aged Sartre man (who I thought graduated with me 10 years ago), and bead artist Betty, I realize that he must be the freewheelin' guy in the second booth from the end.

Devaney sports an ambitious poet-boy 'fro, a very sincere face, and a proper dimple. He's wearing a red and black flannel shirt, drinking coffee, and carrying a composition notebook. I don't know what "the revolution" looks like, but Devaney seems ready for it.

"Do you know Ryan Adams?" Devaney asks after I sit down. "Here, let me grab a City Pages and I'll show you." He's back in a flash with the paper, which features a photo of Adams in the A List section. "There's always pictures of him like this where he's looking sad and staring off into the distance, brooding. I know chicks are totally diggin' it. There's another picture of him where he's wearing these smart-guy glasses, so sometimes I take my friend's glasses and put them on and mess my hair up and look really sad. Anyway, last week I got Rolling Stone and there's a big, whole-page picture of him with those glasses sitting at the exact same typewriter that I just bought. I laughed so hard I almost threw up my lunch."

Devaney may make a good Ryan Adams clone, but his albums suggest that he's more interested in developing his own image. The 21-year-old outgrows songs like junior high kids outgrow jeans. Last January he released Whatever That Is, a self-produced, eight-song collection of folk rock. In this first collection, Devaney seems to be working through the basic recipe of his music. His Dylan homages--"Talkin Brian Jameson Blues" and "When You Get Back"--are songs you could use to woo a girl who buys her dresses at Global Village, but probably not one who buys her coffee at Bob's Java Hut. Devaney's vocals are familiar, sweet, and clumsy--like the mood of a dorm party before the gathering turns drunken and bitter.

The songs he's written since the release of Whatever That Is are what he calls "a Blood on the Tracks for twentysomethings." He's planning to release them sometime later this winter as two separate (currently unnamed) CDs. As he further revisits Highway 61, Devaney seems to be finding his own voice. He trades in some of his conversational tendencies for something like actual singing. His sound may not exactly have a legato line, but it does have a sort of raw, honest charm and lyrics that offer skillful internal rhyme (i.e. "fiction fairy" and "Dictionary").

Like Dylan, Devaney considers songwriting a vehicle for poetry. Also like the Hib-bing Chamber of Commerce's Man of the Epoch, he's working out his musical kinks at the 400 Bar--a gig he says he got by "hanging out there and drinking their beer."

I'm not necessarily sure that we need a new Dylan. As my old college friend Stump once said, the old one is still kinda kickin'. Even if we don't need a new one, we might need the guy Martin Devaney turns out to be: one who is indeed worthy of his own smart-guy glasses.

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