Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, has released three cover albums over the course of her near-three decade career. No slouch in the songwriting department herself, her unique smoky voice has shown equally adapt to taking on the works of others, and those three albums are just as worth seeking out as her own work. As you might have worked out, on this album she tackles exclusively the work of Bob Dylan. Long regarded by many as the songwriter’s songwriter, it’s a specific set she deals with here, namely the legendary or infamous Royal Albert Hall concert.
Dylan’s 1966 ‘Royal Albert Hall’ concert has passed into legend. I put the quotation marks in above because the concert which was believed to have taken place at the London venue transpired over time to have taken place slightly earlier at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall and it was here that the infamous heckle of “Judas!” was yelled at Dylan from one of many disgruntled folk fans who felt Dylan had sold out by going electric. It was due to a mislabeled bootleg recording that the misunderstanding arose (a family friend who did attend the actual Royal Albert Hall gig confirmed that there were many there who were mightily annoyed at Dylan, too). Last November, Cat Power played the same fifteen-song set as the Manchester gig at the Royal Albert Hall, and this is the recording of that event.
Keeping up? Good. The album is effectively in two halves, the first acoustic and the second electric. The sense of wonder starts with the opening ‘She Belongs To Me‘ as she treats the song with respect, without getting bogged down in excessive reverence. There are some awesome parts in this first half, the stripped down version of ‘Desolation Row‘ and the reflective version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ The second half sees her joined, as Dylan was, by a band. It would be wrong to see the second half as being more important musically, rather for both Cat Power and Bob Dylan a sign of how brilliant both halves were.
Ask a Dylan fan what their favourite album is, and you’re likely to get many different answers. Not least because while there may have been creative dips (Dylan wasn’t the only icon of the 1960s and 1970s to have a creative lull in the 1980s) , there have been so many high points. At this point in history, I’d proffer 1965’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ as his best, and the final two songs on this album ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man‘ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone‘ both come from that album. Before the former, a member of the audience yells “Judas!” (presumably in the spirit of the occasion rather than attacking her stance), and she simply responds ‘Jesus.’ Less a curse, than an invocation. They might well be the highlights of what is already a brilliant document of what sounds like a fantastic night.
There may be those who wonder what the point of the concert was. In re-enacting it, Cat Power acknowledges the historical importance of the gig, and the amazing songs that make up the set, first in the 1960s and then over half a century later, not to mention putting it in its real place geographically. After all, many songs and albums may be associated with particular places in time (far too many to list here!), but in Ms. Marshall’s hands, these songs take on new life of their own. Many of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s may never have quite been able to escape the long shadows cast by the previous decades, musically speaking, but here the past is acknowledged and brought to the present. Both artists are thankfully still with us, rightfully lauded, and long may this continue.