UnderCover Presents has refined a simple and winning concept. Select a savvy Bay Area musician as guest curator, choose an iconic album, and hire a stylistically diverse cross-section of artists to perform and record each reinvented track. Working with Faultline Studios over the past three years UnderCover has honed its mission with a series of sold-out concerts at various venues exploring six different albums, including The Velvet Underground & Nico, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
On Thursday and Friday, UnderCover returns to Freight & Salvage, where they reprised the beautiful Blue production in January, to re-imagine Bob Dylan’s epochal 1965 record Highway 61 Revisited under the direction of Berkeley-raised vocalist Karina Denike (a tremendously gifted and prolific singer who is just starting to come into her own as a songwriter and bandleader). Highway 61 concludes Sunday at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
In an unusual move for UnderCover, the Jewish Museum played a pivotal role in selecting the artist and the album, though Denike says she’d been considering Dylan since getting tapped as guest music director. The museum had been talking with UnderCover executive director Lyz Luke about collaborating for a while, and its exhibition Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg, which closes on Sunday, made Dylan a natural choice.
“In the end the decision was based on loving the record, but it also connected with the time period of the Ginsberg photos,” Denike says. “It was a really interesting time in Dylan’s work. He was shedding the folk hero persona, becoming surreal, and working on different approaches to songwriting. I felt like it was a good record to cover. There are not as many 10-minute long songs, and it’s a little bit more varied musically so it might give more options for different kinds of musicians.”
The Highway 61 cast includes Berkeley violinist Irene Sazer’s Real Vocal String Quartet (minus Dina Maccabee) with members of the Balkan brass band Inspector Gadje covering “Like A Rolling Stone,” The Struts putting a rockabilly spin on “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” Lily Taylor’s synth-pop interpretation of “From a Buick 6,” and soulman Quinn DeVeaux and The Blue Beat Review laying down the boogie on “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Denike used her prerogative to tackle “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which gets a spooky noirish reading. Pressed to name some of her favorite tracks, she singles out Lily Taylor, and the klezmer band Kugelplex’s intricate version of “Desolation Row.”
“‘From A Buick 6’ is a challenging song, and what she’s done is so beautiful,” Denike says. “It totally takes it out of what you expect of the song, making the lyrics feel warm and cozy.
“I was trying to cast people who could vocally deliver, people who really know how to understand and convey lyrics with feeling,” she continues. “‘Desolation Row’ has so many verses. You have to keep someone’s attention. Kugelplex has taken it to some really fantastic places, making each verse its own entity, with strings, clarinets, different voices.”
If Dylan is one of popular culture’s masters of reinvention, Denike comes to his music with a visceral understanding about what it means to adopt a new persona. Born and raised mostly in England until the age of 12, she spent her youth in Cambridge, where her Czech Jewish parents landed after fleeing the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Her mother had been born in England in 1944 when the family found refuge there from the Nazi invasion, though many relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust.
Back in Czechoslovakia, her mother was careful to maintain an exit strategy, and when Alexander Dubček ushered in the Prague Spring “she had this feeling things were going to get worse,” Denike says. “She wrote herself a letter from a fake aunt in England, and was able to get out. I don’t speak Czech anymore but it’s a big part of my identity.”
Denike’s parents didn’t stay together long, and growing up with her unconventional mother and a younger brother turned into a series of adventures, including a seven-month sojourn to India and a year traveling around Europe in a van doing street theater in chicken costumes. Looking for a congenial and intellectually vibrant community, her mother moved to Berkeley in the early 1980s and quickly “felt pretty at home,” Denike recalls. “In England we were weird. Berkeley felt like you had the right to be who you wanted to be, and there was a combination of cultures and religions.”
At Berkeley High she immersed herself in the arts, singing in choirs and associating with her era’s leading jazz players, particularly saxophonist Joshi Marshall. She soaked up knowledge from his father, veteran jazz bassist Fred Marshall, and performed with the Oakland Youth Chorus, which collaborated with Bobby McFerrin and Jon Hendricks. By the time she graduated in 1989 Denike was touring with the Dance Hall Clashers, a punk ska band, and had started to study jazz with Dee Spencer at San Francisco State.
Over the years she’s performed and recorded with an impressive array of acts, including The Cottontails, 8 Legged Monster, Ralph Carney’s Serious Jass Project, Mr. Lonesome and the Bluebelles, Stara Nova, and various projects led by clarinetist Aaron Novik. With her love of 1930s torch songs, the spare film scores on Ennio Morricone, Motown and doo-wop, she’s honed a highly evocative sound of her own, but it’s only in recent years that she’s started working under her own name.
“I’ve been writing songs as a collaborator for most of my career,” Denike says. “I just found it more fun than being a solo artist. I love vocal harmonies, so I always ended up working with other vocalists. I’ve been writing since I was 18, and didn’t feel fully confident in my own vision.”
On the verge of releasing her first album of her own, Denike is taking a little detour down Highway 61, a route that can only enrich her own work as a songwriter.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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