When sung by Chan Marshall, words like “Everyone’s either making love or else expecting rain” took on new life.
“She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist; she don’t look back. She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black.” These are the opening lines to Bob Dylan’s track, She Belongs to Me and the first words we hear from Cat Power (Chan Marshall). She’s come back to Australia for one special night at the Sydney Opera House: to reimagine Dylan’s famous 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert.
Those words, crooned by Dylan, take on a new, almost self-referential air when sung by Cat Power who has that rare ability to breathe new life into old songs. “I’m shaking on the inside,” Marshall said at one time, in between sips of tea, expressing the enormity of the task at hand.
Covers are a particular beast; occasionally lauded, often panned. Yet Cat Power has made a name - and several albums - for herself as covers-extraordinaire. Onstage she merges eccentric movements and vocal modulation to present a unique take on each of these beloved songs.
This idiosyncratic revisioning shone on Visions of Johanna and Desolation Row (among many others) - the former a lyrically loaded, meandering and yet measured stream-of-consciousness ramble by a sleepless Dylan; the latter a confluence of high and low art meditation on the entropic side of life. When sung by Marshall, words like “Everyone’s either making love or else expecting rain” took on new life.
This gig saw a variation from the stark solo figure of curly-haired Dylan under the spotlight: instead a triumvirate of musicians - Marshall and accompanying acoustic guitarist and the charmingly insouciant harmonicist who leant on his piano like an old-timey barfly, spilling mellifluous utterances from his pipe with a nonchalant grace.
Dylan’s 1966 was of course infamous for its blending of the traditional folk acoustic balladry and the ‘electric’ second act which saw the modern bard booed and heckled and many walk-outs. Now, with truncated attention spans, some audience members struggled to stay in their seats but there was nothing but a warm reverence for Marshall.
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The gig perhaps hit its stride towards its end with the closing two tracks - Ballad of a Thin Man and Like a Rolling Stone - with the mid-sixties modish rhythm and blues hitting deep and hard, particularly with the organ and bass accompaniment.
Marshall’s sultry Southern voice added a soul Dylan could never quite achieve. The drop on “How does it feel?” has this ineffable emancipatory atmosphere made all the more immersive without the nasal drone of the original. Yet, the silhouetted band (who remained so for the entire gig) nodded to the genius as they bowed to the audience who obliged with a standing ovation.