And sings Dylan live…
Cat Power (a.k.a. Chan Marshall) has Dylan form – she was one of the artists featured on the soundtrack of ‘I’m Not There‘ where she affected a Dylan drawl on a take of ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again‘ – a recording which held its own alongside contributions by the likes of Roger McGuinn, Calexico and Richie Havens. This current album is, however, a different sort of homage – in November 2022 Cat Power took to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall to recreate the well known and much bootlegged 1966 Dylan gig given the same name: which was, of course, actually performed at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. That venue, other than its façade and staircase, has been demolished to make way for a hotel – so the obvious solution was to adopt the long misattributed venue for the recreation.
This was, though, a very different gig to Dylan’s original. He was faced with boos and an infamous cry of “Judas!“, whilst it is safe to say that Cat Power was greeted by a crowd very much on her side. The simmering tension of the original concert is not there, instead this is a pure celebration. Even when someone decides to prematurely cry “Judas!” before ‘Ballad of a Thin Man‘ Cat Power’s response to the ejaculation is a weary “Jesus” reflecting, perhaps, a double annoyance – the cry in the context of this concert is an unnecessary recreation since no-one is actually annoyed, and then again if it were done merely for historical veracity within the recreation then maybe it would have been better to have done it at the right moment.
So, that’s the context, what of the performance, does that stand up? Well, yes it does – Cat Power has a far clearer delivery that Dylan himself so every nuance of the poetry comes through clearly. Her band are consummate professionals, and the Royal Albert Hall doesn’t have the ropey old PA system that Dylan and The Band had to play through. Taken for itself there’s a lot to enjoy here – ‘Mr Tambourine Man‘ in the acoustic half of the concert is slow and stately, the song no longer a celebration of an ecstatic state but more a slow come-down to normality. Cat Power trips gracefully through ‘Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat‘ with a cutting edge to her vocal, dripping with sarcasm. ‘Tell Me Momma‘ is suitably jaunty – the vocal both demanding and dismissive. ‘Desolation Row‘ magically unfolds over a dozen minutes, as an endless series of characters pass-by – Dylan’s acquaintances and the ebb and flow of a hip scene that he was distancing himself from even as he was composing its perfect and unflattering portrait.
It must have been a great night – a memorable gig, no doubts there and it’s an enjoyable enough listen…but. But it inevitably (and how could it not?) lives in the shadow of a greater gig – a gig where the band had something to prove other than their musical skill. On this night no-one was exhorted to “play it fucking loud” with an inevitable cathartic embracing of the noise over the clarity of the delivery. Here the songs of Dylan are celebrated, and the gig acts as another opportunity to pass judgement on whether Dylan should have “gone electric.” The acoustic half is so good it does make it hard to emphatically say an unqualified “yes“, and perhaps that’s part of the point.