What do you get when combining a talented up-and-coming roots artist with the work of America’s most admired singer songwriter in the cool and welcoming ambience of Grote Street’s Promethean? The answer is 95 minutes of celebratory cover versions by local singer Tara Carragher that should appeal to both die-hard fans and more casual followers of Bob Dylan’s back pages.
Not that it’s easy to draw such distinctions when it comes to Dylan. The man’s personal and musical identity has shifted so much over the past fifty years that what it means to be a true Dylanite can be hard to define. His towering status as poet laureate of popular music attracts respect and admiration from almost every corner of modern song writing, while his original followers, those all-too-serious devotees of the sixties folk movement, abandoned him for going electric and selling out to the populism of rock and roll more than forty-five years ago in the summer of 1965.
Which is exactly what this show takes as its thematic and structural inspiration, albeit loosely. The show consists of two parts, with Tara playing solo and acoustic for most of the first set before returning after a fifteen minute interval armed with a backing band, electric guitar and several of Dylan’s most energetic songs. Based on the famous 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert when Dylan’s second, electric set was met with jeers and a cry of “Judas!”, Carragher has fun re-enacting that history, drawing attention to the moment when she switches guitars while the crowd laughs and heckles in response.
The two set lists themselves are drawn primarily but not exclusively from Dylan’s sixties output. For the acoustic section, twenty five year old Carragher’s strong and resonant voice runs through six well-done, usual suspects. Although she adopts a nasal drawl more noticeably during the protest classic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and affects something of Dylan’s country twang on “I Shall Be Released,” for the most part Carragher’s singing is purely her own, clear and straight up. It makes sense, considering she describes the appeal of Dylan and other influences such as Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Lucinda Williams and Tom Petty as being their “no nonsense, straight down the line” approach: “There’s no pretension, which is what I like.” Carragher puts the focus firmly on Dylan’s lyrics, telling the audience his music speaks to her more than most because he “means every word he writes.”
Carragher’s voice seems particularly well suited to these softer, more reflective Dylan songs, with “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” sounding beautifully measured and ethereal. But the highlight of this first set was the final number, one of Dylan’s many non-album masterpieces, “Blind Willie McTell.” Written in 1983 for Infidels but not released until 1991, this epic song chronicles the history of American music and slavery with haunting power. Again, Carragher’s voice gave the performance an ethereal quality perfectly complemented by Richard Coates on piano. Building from its sparse, ghostlike beginning to a strong and powerful finish, the song makes a fitting end to the show’s first half.
The second half gets up and running with “All Along the Watchtower,” a Dylan classic made famous by Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic re-interpretation. A jaunty run-through of “Positively 4th Street” is followed by Carragher’s first number on electric guitar, “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat,” which draws loud applause from the crowd. There is some nice solo work here by Steve Salvi on guitar and each of the band get to show their chops during this electric set. For drummer Jamie Jones, this includes not only keeping time but also a fun turn as sound effects man on “the whistley thing” during “Highway 61 Revisited.”
For me, Carragher’s vocals and arrangements on some of Dylan’s raw and rockier material were not as engaging. Her version of Dylan’s late-career classic “Things Have Changed” lacked the original’s gritty vocals and dark, strutting feel that for me defines the song. And during the slowed down rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” which closed the second set, I kept wanting the singer and band to break out and amp up that anthem’s chaotic intensity. However, these were minor flaws and ones that are largely a matter of personal taste. Especially given the number of different treatments and interpretations Dylan’s work has been given over the years, including by the man himself. In any case, all was forgiven with the encore performance of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which finished the show with some more excellent work from the band and a return to the atmospheric and ethereal sound that Carragher had already displayed so well.
The bottom line is, if you have any interest whatsoever in the songs of Bob Dylan or blues and roots music generally, you’ll enjoy this show. Carragher puts on a straight down the line, unpretentious tribute show of which the man born Robert Zimmerman would be proud. Even if she’s not sure about meeting him just yet. “I’m really bad at talking to people I really respect… I think I’d just admire him from afar.”
While Tara is admiring Bob from afar at his upcoming Adelaide Entertainment Centre gig, you should take the opportunity to admire her musical skills from a little closer in by getting along to her second and final performance of Freewheelin’ at The Promethean on Saturday the 12th of March at 2pm.