As rock n’ roll’s poet laureate, Bob Dylan has been covered innumerable times, often to disastrous effect. Garth Brooks’ take on “Make You Feel My Love” comes to mind. And how many people out there still can’t sing “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” without lapsing into a screechy Axl Rose impersonation after each chorus?
With so many lackluster Dylan covers committed to tape, it’s only natural to be skeptical about yet more. After all, people don’t so much cover Dylan to breathe new life into his songs as to proclaim, “Hey, look at me – I’m doing Dylan!” It’s all become rather self-serving, and rarely does it result in anything intriguing or even enjoyable; for every Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower”, there’s a dozen covers on par with Jon Bon Jovi’s live take of “Just Like a Woman”. Yes, John Francis Bongiovi has covered Dylan, and so has Cher and Billy Joel and Rod freakin’ Stewart and… well… you see the reason for skepticism.
Of all these covers (and there must be thousands upon thousands of them) one of the more interesting is Bryan Ferry’s take on “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. The first track on Ferry’s first solo album, the 1973 covers album These Foolish Things, it actually brings something new and different to the song, replacing its folk weariness with glammed-up blues, converting the song from a melancholy warning to playful pop. Thus began a career-spanning fascination with Dylan for Ferry, one that has led him to cover Dylan from time to time, including the stellar versions of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” that appear on 2002’s Frantic.
Ferry’s success at reconceptualizing Dylan is unusual, a fact that undoubtedly led him to finally make an album entirely of Dylan covers, the recently-released Dylanesque. The verdict on this LP has been mostly positive, perhaps because the versions found on the album are safer than his previous takes on the bard’s classics. While Ferry’s take on “Hard Rain” succeeds because it’s so off-the-wall that it risks blaspheming the original, the tracks on Dylanesque are deliberately benign, each walking a very thin line between genuine roots rock and slightly bloated pop. Even so, the album is enjoyable enough, one that will actually make its way into the CD player on a fairly consistent basis.
Dylanesque Live: The London Sessions not only captures Ferry and his band performing the album live (for the camera – not an audience), it also gives insight into the rationale for and creation process of the project. Thankfully, as the interviews with Ferry make clear, his reasons for making the album were noble. As he explains, Dylan is an artist like Donne or Shakespeare, one whose work grows in mystique and quality with the passage of time. In essence, the versions on Dylanesque are Ferry’s interpretations of Dylan’s songs, much like an actor would interpret a Shakespearean monologue.
As for those interpretations, again, they sometimes border on pedestrian, but the film adds an extra dimension to the tracks that’s lacking on the album. To see Ferry work with and conduct his band – who are, without doubt, extraordinarily tight and talented – is to see a man in command of his craft. Before “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, for example, the maestro is surrounded by his pianist and backup singers, discussing the arrangement of the song before performing it for the camera. Watching his backing players debate back and forth, Ferry finally takes charge and orders, “Let’s try it. Let’s try it now.” The debate ends, everyone takes their place, and together they hash out a classic that sounds completely modern and radio friendly.
This is why the film, though rather straight-forward and subdued, is intriguing: it shows what goes through the mind of one artist when approaching the work of another, and the artistic compromises one has to make when doing so. Ferry clearly studied his subject, realizing that while Dylan is more of a songwriter than a singer, the opposite holds true for himself. Because of this, as Ferry explains, he takes artistic license with some of the songs, omitting verses and emphasizing his own strengths, which, of course, are his smooth voice and seductive delivery—two things Dylan could not claim for himself.
Watching this artistic give and take is quite mesmerizing, and Ferry, for the most part, prevails in bringing something different to the originals. His band is just gritty enough to maintain the rough character of the originals, while he can’t help but make every lyric sound draped in silk. The juxtaposition is sometimes odd, as in “All Along the Watchtower”, but ultimately it works. Interestingly, Ferry sometimes opts to cover other cover versions, as both “Watchtower” and “All I Really Wanna Do” sound more like Hendrix and the Byrds than Dylan. This, however, is expected; the songs, after all, are part of a larger tradition, one that transcends the songs themselves. As Ferry himself acknowledges during one interview segment, when you cover “All Along the Watchtower”, “You’re covering Hendrix as much as you’re covering Dylan.”
Because it does illuminate this tradition that runs through rock n’ roll, as well as its forebears, Dylanesque Live: The London Sessions is a more than worthy companion to the album. Whether all of the covers succeed is almost beside the point altogether. The point is that Dylan’s music, like all great art, takes on different meanings at different times, and because of that it’s always fresh and vital. And that, without doubt, is a very good thing – even if it prompts folks like Garth Brooks to try his hand at Dylan.