Sings Dylan by Cat PowerRelease date: November 10, 2023
Has any person in the history of popular music, on an officially-released recording, done a cover version of a crowd heckle? Perhaps there are other famous examples I can’t place, but when an audience member yells “Judas” towards the end of Cat Power Sings Dylan it does seem a bizarre curiosity that highlights the odd senses of dislocated time and place in the record.
The idea of the record is unusual in the first place: not, as the title might hint, Cat Power playing a selection of Dylan covers, but re-recording an entire two-set concert from fifty-six years ago; albeit quite a significant concert. I was going to start this paragraph with “Without wishing to get too much into the mythology…” but who am I kidding, Dylan is neckdeep, Cat Power has fully waded in, and I’m at least up to my knees even attempting to review this (and be grateful I’ve saved you at least 500 more words about this, cut from the first draft). For the uninitiated: Bob Dylan’s UK (and Paris) tour in 1966 is famous for taking on the road an extension of the moment at the Newport Folk Festival where he ‘went electric’, outraging folkies who felt he’d betrayed their political-aesthetic movement by conceding to pop’s modern sell-out tendencies. The switch was replayed nightly, as every date of the tour featured two sets: seven acoustic songs featuring some of his most celebrated folky standards, followed by a raucous electric set which included new electric songs but also bullish, noisy versions of previously quiet introspective numbers like ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘I Don’t Believe You’. As Dylan repeatedly introduced some of the songs on tour: “it used to go like that, and now it goes like this”. Famously, at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, someone yelled “Judas”, Dylan said “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar” then instructed the band to “play fucking loud” and launched into a gloriously scorching rendition of set-closer ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.
This then appeared on the sort-of tour compilation bootleg Great White Wonder, labelled as from London’s Royal Albert Hall gig (which in any case there were two of) instead of the Manchester set. So there was already a geographical dislocation, which is consecrated by Cat Power going with myth rather than history by recreating it in the London venue, even featuring photos of the inside and outside of the venue on the back and inner gatefold of the vinyl. Another dislocation is that the (not so?) knowing fan at the Cat Power show jumps the gun, yelling the famous accusation at the beginning of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ instead of after it which would lead into ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And finally, dislocated because that incident, and that concert, and that whole tour, was among the most notoriously confrontational set of live music events in pop music history, famous for at least portions of the audience going to the shows so they could boo, slow clap, yell and otherwise voice their dismay at the performer, or indeed their disagreement with the other people expressing dismay at the performer. But now that that furious contestation has passed into pop music legend, the revival here can only celebrate the occasion rather than recreate the ragged sense of tension in the original performance. Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing proposition and one that Cat Power delivers on well.
Dislocation isn’t quite the word, but there’s another kind of shift between the live versions and studio recordings of songs of an artist you know and love well. You really want to hear them do your faves, but actually you might be more impressed with others you’d overlooked: concert renditions in a slightly different rhythm or emphasis might break what you loved about the originals, but showcase others in a way that unlocks them anew. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, notorious not only for completely revising songs in concert to the point they might be practically unrecognisable, while at the best of times delivering lines with an unmistakably oddball emphasis on unexpected syllables. So what’s Cat Power to do, when folding in yet another layer, of doing a version of the version of the version? What she’s done on her several notable covers: trust in her own renditions of music she clearly loves, with her own unmistakable diction and an intensely intimate close sound. Here ‘Fourth Time Around’, never a Dylan track I cared that much about, is given sensitive new life in its gently bouncing rhythm, while in classic live-Dylan fashion, the rhythm of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ is subtly unstrung and reconstituted. The falling-leaf downward drift contained like a microcosm in Cat Power’s “and” that prefaces the song title is testament to her ability to include her own sonic signature while doing justice to a classic song: nothing like Dylan’s style, yet just like him to reorient a line around a word and find a new dimension in it.
Sometimes though the weight of history feels a bit much. Or is just proof of the problem of repetition. Dylan’s 1966 acoustic live versions of ‘Visions of Johanna’ are among the great live step-ups, taking the jangly album recording into far more stark, shadowy, visceral territory: the line “electricity howls in the bones of her face” is clever in the Blonde on Blonde version but becomes hauntingly intense in the echoey halls of febrile, soon-to-be-hostile crowds. While Cat Power’s version hits the notes, and to her credit does her own thing, that intensity just can’t be reconjured. So one of the features of this reimagining is that Dylan’s notorious spikiness is largely smoothed out; a tense hush because no-one knows quite what’s going to go off is turned into more of a cosy intimacy, the telling of a well-known storybook with the pictures done by a new illustrator. This makes, for example, ‘She Belongs to Me’ a more enjoyable listen for me, the stress of Dylan’s staccato urgency resolved into laid-back open-road cruise.
In 1966 The Band blasted through raw, nervy performances, sometimes seeming as uncertain about their electric power as the angry traditionalists in the crowd. On this record the musicianship of Cat Power and band is absolutely impeccable: while the vocals are of course the main focus, the solidity of the support helps carry the record. In Cat Power’s versions she often arrives at the end of the lyric line much earlier than in Dylan’s delivery: with a less accomplished band, this could be awkward, but where the vocal line finds itself arriving at an abrupt cul-de-sac, momentum is carried forward by the assured musical arrangement. It’s such an important emphasis, often lost in Dylan obsessiveness (especially after the Nobel Prize for Literature): he might be a poet, but before that, he’s a musician. A song-and-dance-man. Special mention is due for the impeccable harmonica playing, which like the arrangements in general is less abrasive and more sympathetic; but its also given the importance of free rein here and there, reframing (without merely photocopying) the sometimes provocative, audience-baiting honks on the 1966 recordings as more meditative extemporisations.
The division between acoustic and electric sets feels far less stark, partly because there aren’t crowds of annoyed folkies being audibly mad about it, but also again due to the more controlled performance by the electric band: how could it not be. But this allows focus to return to the songs, rather than getting caught up in the Historical Significance of the 1966 recording. Sometimes, as mentioned, this can have a defanging effect: ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, especially given its length, is a bit sapped of energy this time out. The exhilaration of listening to the 1966 versions of that song is that there’s such directed spite towards many of the people who are right there listening, as in lines like “you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is”. Here that line might ring true in a different, less combative way—what exactly is this revival live album/concert cover? But the change in context also allows other facets to shine: ‘One Too Many Mornings’ has its rough hungover charm when spat out by The Band, but Cat Power makes it more poignant, elegiac even with the ever-present consciousness of time passed.
And of course, those two songs, and the whole concert is a mountain road leading up to the climactic peak, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Again while there’s occasionally a faint whisper of getting caught between Dylan’s original delivery, or the changed, drawled version from the famous concert, or something else entirely, Cat Power opts for a rendition which deftly balances originality and faithfulness to the iconic core of the song: flattening notes at the ends of the lines just before launching the chorus for example, and responding to Dylan’s plaintive drawling out of the last word of “how does it feel?” by spending as much time on the questioning “how”. Perhaps understandably after the last chorus the song peters out: where Bob and The Band ride the song until the wheels fall off and the engine explodes, here it’s more a sudden coast to a stop because the petrol’s run out. But then there’s the actual ending to Cat Power’s rendition: 45 seconds of rapturous applause, all for this performance, whatever it’s relationship to a past one.
Aside from the “Judas” moment, to which Cat Power has a novel response, there’s no recorded crowd banter or stage chat, except for, once, between songs the singer says “This is fun”. A far cry from the surrealist mumbling, lengthy tuning up (reportedly as a deliberate antagonism), and opaque sarcasm in Dylan’s pronouncements on that tour. But this isn’t then. It used to go like that, now it goes like this. Nostalgic in its unusual format, brilliantly refreshing and reframing in its execution, navigating dislocation in all kinds of curious ways, Cat Power Sings Dylan is also, yes, musically enjoyable fun.