On entering the high ceilinged back room of Halifax Street’s Rob Roy Hotel, packed with long beer hall style tables, extra seats around the edge and an adoring, mostly over-fifty crowd of original Dylan fans, one could be forgiven for expecting this to be a fairly run-of-the-mill, workmanlike but predictable homage to another icon of the counter-cultural sixties.
Fortunately, John Hastwell’s Aussie Bob offers a great deal more. Admittedly, what Hastwell and the Rolling Downunder Revue gave us was certainly a tribute show in the truest sense. Aside from audience demographics, song arrangements generally strayed little from the originals (even a faster, reggae style version of “Blowin in the Wind”, John told me, was based on one of Dylan’s own live recordings) and the band was dressed in a wonderfully colourful and bohemian selection of outfits that mirrored those worn during the original Rolling Thunder Revue almost forty years before. But the enthusiasm, passion and camaraderie of the entire outfit ensured this performance avoided sentimental cliché, providing instead a showcase of Dylan’s enduring relevance and the significant musical talent of both Hastwell and his band.
Eschewing a selection of greatest hits covers, the group runs with a more focused approach. Not unexpectedly, the set list contains a great deal of material from both Desire and Blood on the Tracks, the two albums released during and just before Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in late 1975 and early 1976. The aggressive, anthemic rock style and gypsy influence of that tour come through strongly in the performance of classic (but not clichéd) Dylan songs like “One More Cup Of Coffee”, “Sara” and “Idiot Wind”, along with older numbers that suit the edgier, psychedelic gypsy sound perfectly such as “Ballad of a Thin Man”.
The first set ended with a crowd pleasing rendition of “Slow Train”, title track of the first album from Dylan’s so-called ‘born again’ period and thus one of his more fraught recordings. A political song but one that contains much to offend many of Dylan’s original fans, Hastwell approached it head on with raw, bluesy relish. The musical power of those three Christian albums has never been in question: gospel music works magic. (Indeed, some of Dylan’s best harmonica playing can be found on lesser know songs from these releases. Here’s looking forward to renditions of “Every Grain Of Sand” and “In the Summertime” by mouth-organ maestro Hastwell in the near future). It’s always been the words from this era that have seemed too religious, too misogynist or too nationalistic. But instead of underplaying or ignoring the lyrics, Aussie Bob embraced and even localised them by replacing “Australian” for “American” when talking about “all that foreign oil” controlling our soil. It’s a wonderfully aggressive, bitter, angry song and this performance did justice to every choked-out line. Which is good, because for every line about “Sheiks walking around like kings” there’s another one observing “people starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting / you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it”. In short, Hastwell seems to embrace and celebrate the man as he was and is, not as any one group might like him to be.
Which makes sense, considering he’s been listening to Dylan’s music since childhood and has finally come home, as it were, to the songs he really wants to be performing. Having taught both harmonica and slide guitar in Adelaide since 1986 (some of the Rolling Downunder Revue’s members are former students), played in numerous bands and performed with the likes of Bernadette Peters and Vernon Reid, Hastwell has a fair claim to expertise, experience and longevity in the local music scene.
After three packed Fringe shows (the first two sold out) and with a band who express nothing but respect, admiration and affection for their own Aussie Bob, Adelaide can apparently look forward to more performances from this band of Dylanesque gypsies within the year. When that happens, you should get along to see them. It’s some of the best Dylan has to offer, at a pub near you (not the cavernous Entertainment Centre), and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper these days than seeing the man himself.
So follow Adelaide’s own Rolling Down Under Revue into the jingle jangle morning. You won’t regret it and, besides, there’s no place you’re going to, right?