There is something happening, but you don’t know what it is, as someone once said, and they may well say it again, following this daring further adventure in the wonder of Ms. Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power. Despite a healthy and reliable back catalog of her own material. she has become quite the regular on these pages, care of her regular re-interpretations scattered liberally about her output. Sure, she has “done” Dylan before, but she has never, nor anyone else to my knowledge, taken on quite such a doughty challenge as she has on Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert.
A legendary recording, initially only available on bootleg, Bob Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” concert (ask your hep uncle why that’s in quotes) has passed into the annals of not only Dylan mythology, but of the whole development of 20th century music. Few would ever risk such an endeavor as recreating, let alone in a live setting, let alone in the same live setting as the original. (OK, as the original claimed to be, the Dylan program actually coming from a concert at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Plus, given that Manchester venue is now a Radisson hotel, it would be tricky.) But, ever the free spirit, this is what Cat Power did. And here we have the evidence.
Famously split into two parts, the received wisdom, around what Dylan’s 1966 audience were expecting of the acoustic troubadour, ahead the ground-breaking electric set that so provoked and upset a proportion of his then fanbase. By recreating history, one issue is always that the future has passed, and so her audience both knew and were voraciously expectant of what was to transpire. This means Marshall has to deliver on her own account, as, short of reversing the arrangement, there’s an idea, shocks were the last thing these punters were expecting.
Polite applause greets her arrival, the curiosity and anticipation almost pungent. Launching into “She Belongs To Me,” it is a shock how low in her register she is occupying, sounding more like a prophetess, a seer or an oracle, possibly aptly. The guitar is simple and stark, much as the original and the silence about her is deafening. The first blast of harmonica is perfect, every bit as brilliant/awful as Dylan. So, a sterling start. “Fourth Time Around” follows, maybe not one of the pinnacles of the Dylan pantheon, but the surprise is how this reflects and reminds of the delicate beauty it has. As in, when was the last time any of us sat down, deliberately, to listen through his pre-electric songs? It is almost poignant, as she croons through it.
“Visions of Johanna” is always toted as one of the songs, the one that the Blonde On Blonde brigade use to attack the Blood On The Tracks proponents. Which is the problem: it has become so darn sacred that, gulp, this rendition is actually a bit boring, in the reverence with which Marshall endows it. (Plus, I always preferred the album version, with band.) Oddly, despite its ubiquity, with 162 cover versions and counting, she really then nails “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” mainly through her pained, smoky delivery, no bells, no whistles. Having said, her restrained yelp, repeated each time, ahead the title as it ends each verse, is terrific, almost enough to make it this whole exercise worthwhile by itself. If Dylan sounded bitter and vitriolic, Ms. Marshall just sounds defeated, and it is wonderful. File “Desolation Row” under the same sort of critique as “Visions,” feeling and sounding a little like an academic treatise. But those words, those words!
So how would a woman tackle the next song? The answer is that she makes “Just Like A Woman,” as with “Baby Blue,” sound to come from a position of regret, without much/any of the retribution. This is clever, given the only difference here is her voice, the arrangement otherwise a near facsimile. Truly remarkable. The acoustic set ends, as you know it will, with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” As someone who oscillates between the original and the Byrds, Dylan’s RAH rendition has always been my favorite by the author, care of the slower speed. So, Marshall does it for me, even as she again hovers on the pivot between revision and reverence.
I guess there was then an intermission, and I would love to have overheard the talk in the lobby and bars, as the audience weighed up that first half, and wondered how she might approach the electric set. I also wondered how that would have compared with the same, 56 years earlier, the punters then unaware of what was to follow.
“Tell Me, Momma” seems always such an unprepossessing song, Dylan by numbers, but that takes away the shock it must have given, way back then. That shock isn’t there, this time around, and neither, quite, is Marshall. However the band are terrific, the guitar and organ pure Robertson and Hudson.
“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like we Have Never Met)” has her confidence back in hand, the voice all smoke, with no need of mirrors. Again, a straightforward delivery, but it cuts sufficient mustard to allow the next song to be an absolute belter. Let me say here that “Baby, Let me Follow You Down” is possibly near my least favorite song covered by the bard of Duluth, with his live RAH rendition doing nothing to remedy that position. (Nerd alert: this isn’t a Dylan original, it being a trad. art., originally popularized by bluesman Eric Von Schmidt.) So, how is it that Marshall can make this the high point of this side? The arrangement is little different from Dylan and the Band’s, so it must be in her breathless vocal, the urgency suggesting far greater need than Dylan’s ever so slightly cynical take on it. It is worth noting, too, that pianist Aaron Embry and organist Jordan Summers are on absolute fire.
Embry opens “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” his piano a comfortable bed for Marshall to again totally change the receipt of this song, through the cadence in her voice. Sure, like Dylan, she offers little discipline to the notes written, running with them free and loose, but wherever Dylan might sound to snarl, she seems somehow caring and considerate. Or am I reading too much Dylanology into my appreciation of the man versus the myth? I think not, it being that Marshall’s voice is just inherently smoother, even when she affects otherwise.
Can I skip “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”? Despite the comments above, she can’t do anything to alter this sow’s ear. Personal opinions differ, of course, so forgive me if I rain on your parade, but I find it vile. The audience seem to think otherwise, mind, it getting one of the bigger cheers. “One Too Many Mornings” is safer territory, this latter-day reminder of the song showing just how much “Not Dark Yet” later borrowed back both the tune and not a little ambience. Or am I just wishing it were that she were covering? Never mind, it is fine and I especially like Arsun Sorrenti’s trebly guitar solo.
Bang off cue, a song too early, this where the expected audience “ad-lib” of “Judas!” arrives, garnishing a wholly different response from Marshall, an almost genuinely exasperated “Jesus.” Never mind, as it is the perfect intro for an incandescent “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” the drama of the delivery dauntingly good, as she blurs and extends notes in a way that even out-Dylans Dylan. In fact, this is the first time she really occupies a song purely as herself, in the fashion of her earliest work. It really is another high point. As is closer “Like A Rolling Stone,” no mean feat as there cannot be anyone in the world unfamiliar with the Al Kooper-infused studio original. Marshall flattens many of the notes, and alters the rhythm of the words, emphasizing the how over the feel. It is a capable and confident rendition, and is one I can see staying in her future repertoire. In fact, excuse me, I’m going to play it again, she making me think about the question, rather than assume it all rhetorical.
So, then, did she do it? Yes, yes and yes, and I hope that somewhere on the road, there’s a man in his eighties feeling that same glow of pride that she has done him proud. Cat Power Sings Dylan isn’t a greatest hits and these aren’t Dylans’s greatest songs, but she gives back life, where she can, to most of them, and it is a document that can sit proudly next to the original. As I write, I see she is taking Cat Power Sings Dylan out on tour next year. You should go.
Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert tracklisting:
(All Bob Dylan covers except where stated)
- She Belongs To Me
- Fourth Time Around
- Visions Of Johanna
- It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
- Desolation Row
- Just Like A Woman
- Mr. Tambourine Man
- Tell Me, Momma
- I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
- Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (traditional cover)
- Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
- Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
- One Too Many Mornings
- Ballad Of A Thin Man
- Like A Rolling Stone