Cat Power Covers Dylan’s 1966 “Albert Hall” Concert

When Bob Dylan per­formed for the third time at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in the Sum­mer of 1965, he was a man on a mis­sion. He’d arrived there in ’63 and had been greet­ed as a prophet, and had been wel­comed there the fol­low­ing year as the sec­ond coming. 

But over the course of 11 famous months, that is to say in less than a year, he’d deci­sive­ly moved on and had pro­duced three of the most impor­tant albums in mod­ern music, with Bring­ing It All Back Home, High­way 61 Revis­it­ed, and Blonde on Blonde. One of which had pro­duced his first num­ber one hit sin­gle, Like a Rolling Stone

So it’s not as if he’d been hid­ing what he’d been up to under a bushel. When then he got to New­port in ’65 he was deter­mined to spread the good news. And he and his full band went out on stage and per­formed 3 songs with every bit as much noise, ener­gy and ampli­fi­ca­tion as they’d done in the stu­dio. But they were uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly booed off stage. 

When, even­tu­al­ly, they were able to per­suade a shell-shocked and furi­ous Dylan to go back out on stage, he returned to per­form anoth­er three songs with just his acoustic guitar. 

And for the next cou­ple of years, they toured the rest of the US, Aus­tralia and even­tu­al­ly Europe in that same way. Dylan would go out with his gui­tar and per­form the first half of his set acousti­cal­ly, before return­ing with the rest of the band to blow them all off stage with a rau­cous elec­tric sec­ond half set. 

And duti­ful­ly, the crowd would polite­ly applaud that first half, their appre­ci­a­tion being tem­pered by what they knew was com­ing. And then, once the amps were plugged in, they mechan­i­cal­ly booed the rest of their performance. 

(By the bye, I will per­son­al­ly spon­sor any PhD stu­dent who agrees as part of their doc­tor­al the­sis to track down as many of the then teenagers who were inter­viewed in D. A. Pen­nebak­er’s sem­i­nal Don’t Look Back doc­u­men­tary, to ask them how they feel about hav­ing com­plained about a con­cert they went to, know­ing exact­ly what it was they were going to see and hear. And going any­way, with the express pur­pose of boo­ing the per­former off the stage. 

I’d be curi­ous to dis­cov­er pre­cise­ly how many of them went on into adult­hood to unmask the piz­za­gate “con­tro­ver­sy”.)

This bat­tle of wills cul­mi­nat­ed with the gig Dylan and the band did at Man­ches­ter in ‘66, which was lat­er mis-labelled by the boot­leg­ger as hav­ing tak­en place in London’s Albert Hall. It’s this sto­ried set that Cat Pow­er has cho­sen to repro­duce, in a live per­for­mance she gave, mis­chie­vous­ly, in London’s Albert Hall.

Chan (pro­nounced Sean) Mar­shall per­forms as Cat Pow­er and has had a sim­i­lar­ly tem­pes­tu­ous rela­tion­ship with her audi­ence. Crip­pled by stage fright, she turned to alco­hol and drugs with all the usu­al dire and trag­ic consequences. 

Many of her albums pro­vide ample evi­dence for an eclec­tic musi­cal her­itage. 1998’s Moon Pix was record­ed with the Dirty Three, Nick Cave’s back­ing band, 2003’s You Are Free was with Dave Grohl and Pearl Jam’s Eddy Ved­der, and 2006’s The Great­est was record­ed in Mem­phis with an array of soul and RnB luminaries. 

Nev­er­the­less, Pow­er man­ages to pro­duce this remark­ably dis­tinc­tive voice and sound. With any­one else, there’d be the con­stant risk and wor­ry of monot­o­ny and rep­e­ti­tion. But some­how, all she ever sounds is true.

Nonethe­less, I was a lit­tle anx­ious on hear­ing about this lat­est album. Why would any­one want to repro­duce, almost note for note, a per­for­mance as famous as this? And, sure enough, on the first few lis­tens, I have to con­fess, I was momen­tar­i­ly disappointed. 

After all, the angry con­tempt that those songs were born of, and which were then fuelled so vis­cer­al­ly by the atmos­phere that they came to be per­formed live in, is some­thing that Mar­shall is lit­er­al­ly inca­pable of. She’s so weighed down by doubt and bouts of self-loathing, that any anger can only ever be direct­ed inward.

And yet, that even­tu­al­ly becomes the album’s strength. Stripped of Dylan’s fury, all you’re left with are the actu­al songs. It’s as if they were final­ly allowed breathe. 

Dylan has always insist­ed, to the rest of the world’s bemuse­ment, that he’s prin­ci­pal­ly a musi­cian and only sec­on­dar­i­ly a writer – though how much of that he real­ly believes is anyone’s guess. Removed from Dylan’s very per­son­al and par­tic­u­lar explo­ration of Amer­i­can roots and 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cana, what you’re left with is a burst of extra­or­di­nary lyri­cism, mind-expand­ed imagery and an un-fet­tered, explod­ing imagination. 

And yet, it’s still un-mis­tak­ably, and tri­umphant­ly a new Cat Pow­er record.

Lis­ten to Cat Power’s She Belongs to Me here:

Watch her per­form Like a Rolling Stone here:

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