Bob covers Bob

Bob Dylan and band in Shadow Kingdom, via Pitchfork

Bob Dylan’s latest album, Shadow Kingdom, is an intriguing puzzle. The album is the soundtrack of a 2021 concert film, Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan, directed by Alma Har’el. The film was released as a one-off on the live streaming platform, with little information provided beforehand on its form or contents. The assumption among Dylan followers is that it was to be a concert film, of the kind other artists have issued on streaming platform as live exclusives, particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

But we never learn. Dylan does not do what other artists do. Shadow Kingdom turned out to be a pre-recorded performance set in an atmospheric club, named the “Bon Bon Club”, supposedly located in Marseilles. It was artfully filmed in black-and-white. Dylan sang with a freshness we all thought had left him, played guitar and harmonica, and was accompanied by a five-piece band, notable for its anonymity (all wore pandemic-suitable masks) and the absence of a drummer. All of it had been pre-recorded, so the performance was mimed.

The greatest surprise was the songs Dylan chose to sing. The man who has largely eschewed his back catalogue in recent years, preferring to concentrate on his latest songs, had turned nostalgic. Thirteen of the fourteen numbers were indeed ‘early’ songs, selected from the first three decades of his career, the most recent being ‘What Was It You Wanted’ from 1989. The fourteenth was a new instrumental, ‘Sierra’s Theme’, which closed the set. The songs chosen were, in performance, mostly quite different in arrangement and tone from the originals. There was a tremulous ‘Tombstone Blues’, ready to burst into action but never doing so; a sweetly reflective ‘Forever Young’ that made one of the songs he has performed the most sound newly-minted; a funky, swaggering ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’; and – my personal favourite – a wistful ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ that makes it clear that one of the less well-known songs from his classic mid-60s period is one of his finest. All of it was charming, engaging, thought-provoking.

What we have here, on the 2023 soundtrack album, is Bob Dylan covering Bob Dylan. Of course Dylan has been revisiting his back catalogue in concert for decades, albeit in varying amounts. Sometimes the arrangements have been radically different to their original recorded versions, to a point where the audience – not helped by the older Dylan’s ravaged voice – have played a guessing game, trying to discern any familiar word or pair of notes which might disclose what the man was singing. Then he would come out with a ‘Howdoesit f-e-e-e-e-e-e-lllll’, and we all cheered with grateful recognition at the latest mangling of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

Forever Young, from Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan

Shadow Kingdom is not like that. This is a conscious effort to rethink his legacy in a studio, with a formal album release that is not a mere live concert recording. Whether the impetus for such a venture came from Dylan, his management, or a persuasive arranger (one suspects the hand of T-Bone Burnett, who is among the musicians credited with the recording as opposed to the five who mimed on the day), does not matter much. You could imagine Shadow Kingdom being the first in a new series for Dylan, after the Bootleg series, in which he revisits his back catalogue with fresh covers of his own work.

These are the conditions that fit this site’s definition of what a good cover version should be:

The successful cover version must be an arresting interpretation of an established original … The musician attempting a cover of course needs to invest it with their own personality, to do something different with it, but it will always be with the listener’s knowledge of the established idea of the song – the Platonic ideal, if you will. We hear both songs, original and its complement, playing off each other, creating a deeper listening experience. We also sense the other version that may yet be to come, as each new imaginative interpretation sparks off the possibility of another that will take a great song in yet another direction.

Dylan has been listening to Dylan and has decided to see what he can do that respects what he did in the past but takes things in a new direction, reflecting his personality now. Dylan has been around long enough that large parts of his back catalogue must be something of a mystery to him. Does he remember every song? Does he wonder who that person was who first sang these songs that are somehow still a part of him? As he says of his past in Martin Scorsese’s mock documentary Rolling Thunder Revue, “it was so long ago I wasn’t even born”. Never was there a truer witticism.

This then begs a question. How good is Bob Dylan at covering Bob Dylan? How does he compare with other artists who have recorded his songs?

I have been planning for a while to write a blog post about artists who have made a particular feature of covering Dylan. Not those who have covered the man once or twice, but those who covered him with such frequency that it is as their personality was a part of his, or his personality was a part of theirs. Some have come up with albums that are made entirely of Dylan’s songs; other have returned repeatedly to his songs over a long career. They are those who have a compulsion to look in the mirror and see Dylan there, just as Dylan himself has done with Shadow Kingdom.

So here is another top ten, this time of artists who are specialists in covering Dylan’s songs, with one song each as an example. Instrumental covers have been excluded. It’s actually a top eleven, for reasons that will be made clear, and as with previous such lists it is presented as a countdown purely for fun’s sake. But will Dylan make it to number one?

10. Bryan Ferry, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’

Bryan Ferry has a Dylan compulsion that he just can’t let go. From his early solo work when Roxy Music were in their pomp, to his 2007 covers album Dylanesque, Ferry simply has such fun acknowledging his debt. I’m fond of his haunting version of the rarely-covered ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, but I’ve picked ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, from 1973, because it played an important part in the young me discovering Dylan in the first place. What sort of a pop song is this, I asked. What an amazing torrent of words. All those ideas that I want to make my ideas. I must discover more.

9=. Robyn Hitchcock, ‘Visions of Johanna’

In at equal ninth is Robyn Hitchcock, once of minor British new wave outfit the Soft Boys, who in 2002 produced a double-album entitled Robyn Sings which was nothing but Dylan covers. There’s a rawness to them, helped by the live recording, that makes the listener acutely aware of bared nerves’. As he says in his introduction, ‘Visions of Johanna’ was the song that made him want to become a songwriter. That taps into a truth that marks all of the finest cover versions. They say, I heard this and it was what I wanted to be.

9=.Emma Swift, ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift is the partner of Robyn Hitchcock – hence the diplomatic joint scoring – and made a powerful impression in 2020 with her own album of Dylan covers, Blonde on the Tracks. Her approach is so fresh, so touching, so much in love with the songs. Based on this evidence alone, Dylan is going to last out the twenty-first century, and beyond.

8. Melanie, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’

American singer-songwriter Melanie sang in the Greenwich Village folk clubs that were Dylan’s training ground, and regularly turned to his songs in the early seventies when at the peak of her fame. Her cover versions are tremulous and deeply-felt. They shed the tear that Dylan holds back. Her 1974 version of ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ is a modest epic of bare emotion.

7. Cassandra Wilson, ‘Shelter from the Storm’

Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson tackles Dylan from time to time, with affection and understanding. Her warm, deep vocals make ‘Shelter from the Storm’ an entrancing, swirling adventure. It’s not the only measure of a good cover version that the original singer could not possibly sing like this, but it’s a useful one.

6. The Persuasions, ‘The Man in Me’

The kings of street corner acapella have covered everyone from the Beatles to the Barenaked Ladies, but have a special affinity with Dylan. They produced a 2010 collection, Knockin’ on Bob’s Door, but other tributes are dotted across their recordings, among them a version of ‘The Man in Me’, a song which looked like a filler back in 1970 but has grown in strength and popularity ever since. The Persuasions bring out all of its soulfulness. It’s how the angels sing.

5. Marianne Faithfull, ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’

Marianne Faithfull’s Dylan covers are mostly confined to the one album, Rich Kid Blues, which was recorded in 1971 but not released until 1985, when Faithfull had regained some of the fame that she once had. The four Dylan songs on the album – ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’, ‘Visions of Johanna’, ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ and ‘Corinna Corinna’ (not exactly Dylan’s, but he appropriated it) – have a knowingness about them which may not have fitted what the world expected of her in 1971 but fitted exactly the worn but wise voice that she gained a decade later. It’s the voice of understanding.

4. Bob Dylan, ‘Queen Jane Approximately’

How good is Bob Dylan at covering Bob Dylan? Well, as good as anyone else on this list, certainly. There is that combination of rediscovery and tribute throughout Shadow Kingdom that is essential to the finest cover versions. Of course the artist has the special privilege of having written the song in the first place and knowing in their heart what makes it work, but there is the extra challenge of fading memory facing up to changing times. It’s the battle between the two that makes Shadow Kingdom such a success. ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ stands out in particular for being the song that Dylan heard back in 1965 that no one else quite sensed. Now we can.

3. Barb Jungr, ‘Every Grain of Sand’

Barb Jungr is a British cabaret singer with an exceptional gift for cover versions. Her repertoire includes the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brel, but it is her Dylan covers – two full albums of them so far, and others dotted around elsewhere – that are her most outstanding work. Aided by skilful arrangements, her versions time and again find the hook that you had not realised was there. Her breathtaking cover of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ has a simple, irresistible string part and a voice of revelation.

2. Bettye LaVette, ‘What Was It You Wanted’

60s soul singer Bettye Lavtte has enjoyed a fine late flowering, of which the highlight has been her 2018 album of Dylan covers, Things Have Changed. It is one of the finest of Dylan cover albums for its consistency of tone and its feeling for the dark, ‘world gone wrong’ argument that characterises much of Dylan’s recent output. The slow, ominous groove of ‘What Was It You Wanted’ warns as much as it beguiles.

1. Chris Smither, ‘Desolation Row’

Chris Smither is an American singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, so of course he is one of a long list of those viewed by some as Dylan clones. Smither’s own songs are thoughtful and compelling, his guitar technique awe-inspiring, and his world-weary voice that of someone who has lived hard and has belatedly learned a few things. His occasional covers of Dylan are quietly extraordinary, among them ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’, ‘Visions of Johanna’, ‘Down in the Flood’, ‘What Was It You Wanted?’. He turns them into new-found songs of old wisdom. It is no small challenge to make the epic ‘Desolation Row’ into your own. Smither’s version comes direct from the Shadow Kingdom.

With apologies to Flatt & Scruggs, Odetta, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Fairport Convention, Judy Collins, Rod Stewart, Ben Sidran, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and a good many more. You came close, but there wasn’t room for you all.



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