Talking Bob Dylan Blues, Barbican, London
A tribute in tune with its subject
Wednesday 28 September 2005
There's Martin Carthy, whom Dylan befriended on his first visit to London in the freezing winter of 1962. They traded songs and sources and demolished a piano for firewood. There's Odetta, whose extraordinary voice - a kind of Homeric blues holler - seems almost limitless in breadth and depth, and who inspired the teenage Dylan to switch from rock'n'roll to folk. And there's Liam Clancy, the Irish lion interviewed in Scorsese's film, one of the ebullient spirits of the Greenwich Village scene that focused the young Dylan to become the icon celebrated tonight.
The intelligent line-up brings together some very different ways of interpreting Dylan and his songs. There's the idiosyncratic, beatnik spirit of Roy Harper; Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock from the post-punk era; the jazz chanteuse Barb Jungr; and Willy Mason and KT Tunstall from the latest generation to have found their own skins, just as the teenage Dylan did, in folk.
Bragg, who shares with Dylan a devotion and debt to Woody Guthrie, opens with the rousing liberty prayer "When the Ship Comes In", and closes with his own "Wolf Covers Its Trail", in a kind of song dialogue with Dylan. Carthy follows, and is stunning in his handling of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", in his vocal phrasing and spare but complex guitar work. It is one of those anchor songs that show you how epic, intimate and disciplined a storyteller Dylan is, and Carthy's reading is stately and dramatic.
A palpably nervous Mason follows - another, albeit much younger, example of the power of one man and a guitar. He continues the focus on Dylan's early catalogue with a tender, clean-cut take on the love song "To Ramona".
There's some fabulous archive footage of Odetta in No Direction Home, and to conclude the first half she makes a rare and thrilling UK appearance to deliver a superlative "Tomorrow Is a Long Time", one of those songs that you feel could have stepped straight from the Elizabethan era. It is one of the spine-tingling highlights of the evening.
After the interval, Clancy takes the stage to reprise some bonhomie from the White Horse Tavern (the New York pub he and Dylan frequented, where a decade before Dylan Thomas had drunk his way to death). A snatch of the rebel song "Brennan of the Moor" segues into one of Dylan's early character ballads, "Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie", and he bows out in style with one of the signature tunes of the Tavern, a song penned in the pub's back room that became a worldwide hit. One wonders what a Dylan performance of "Those Were the Days" would sound like.
The Jazz cabaret vocalist Jungr provides a reflective, early-hours afterglow for "If Not for You", followed by a stunning "Ring Them Bells", one of few selections from Dylan's later catalogue. Clad in purple trousers and a yellow patterned shirt, the former Soft Boy Hitchcock has two giant songs to fill - "Visions of Johanna" and "Not Dark Yet" - and he pulls it off with a with a powerfully focused performance and some skeletal, brooding instrumental support from John Paul Jones.
They used to say that "nobody sings Dylan like Dylan", but Harper's high, swelling tones and incredible guitar-picking spin a distinctive kind of magic from the wistful, frozen eternals of "Girl from the North Country". A real-life girl from the North, Tunstall, closes the show, leading her band through intense, rousing readings of "Tangled up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate". She has a strong emotional undertow in her voice; it is the kind of voice that needs these kind of songs. She is one of the night's youngest performers, and you hope in 40 years' time she'll still be singing these songs.
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