Like him or not, you can’t deny his influence. As one of the most covered artists of all time, it is clear that Bob Dylan been an inspiration to a huge range of musicians across the last forty or so years. This sway hasn’t diminished in recent years either, as proved by The Dylan Fest last Friday. A host of Irish musicians – as well as a couple of big international names – descended on The Academy for a night of tribute and celebration.
If attendance was anything to go by, Irish fans were more than happy with this development. The Academy was practically full to capacity when the Cabin Down Below band took to the stage at the start of the show, kicking off with one of the bigger names on the bill, Travis frontman Fran Healy.
Healy led the band into acoustic versions of I Want You and You’re a Big Girl Now delivered in his distinctive velvety Scottish accent. After bowing out to rapturous applause Healy was replaced at the mic by American songwriter and producer Butch Walker. “I’m the idiot who picked the song with nineteen verses,” joked Walker before launching into a lively and energetic version of Tangled up in Blue.
The first Irish artist of the night to grace the stage was Bell X1’s Paul Noonan, who took the show from acoustic to electric with the heartfelt Just Like A Woman. Followed by Cathy Davey, who delivered the spine tingling Ballad of Thin Man in her unmistakable sultry voice.
These two acts slowed the pace somewhat, but things immediately exploded back into life when the hyper Jerry Fish leapt out onto the stage – flying into Gotta Serve Somebody. Fish was like some kind of demented evangelical preacher, roaring out his lines with a religious zeal and falling down on his knees in passion at the choruses. The energy was infectious, leading the audience into a huge sing-along. He gave a performance which was tough to follow – but Gemma Hayes managed by slowing the pace down once again with Most of the Time, her silky voice like a shiver down the spine of the entire venue.
However when Gavin Friday took his turn later on it the show, his heady version of Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall did seem a little like an attempt to imitate or top the onstage antics of Fish, without really pulling it off. While most of the acts managed to bring their distinctive sound to Dylan’s music, taking it to the point that it was difficult to imagine that one artist could have written everything in the show, there was a certain poetry running through everything that was unmistakably Dylan.
The Irish acts continued to flow, first with Jape, and then Conor and Neil Adams of The Cast of Cheers taking on All Along the Watchtower. By and large the diversity of the acts managed to keep things from sounding like a tribute acts. The only exception was an unremarkable delivery of Mr. Tambourine Man by Heathers, featuring actor Danny Masterson on acoustic guitar.
Fortunately the show kept on flowing at a steady driving pace, with the changeovers between acts happening with a rehearsed precision that kept the audience’s attention from wavering.
The midpoint of the show came with a tender interlude from American singer/songwriter Boz Scaggs, the only artist on the bill of a similar age with Dylan. Scaggs performed mellow, bluesy versions of Corinna, Corinna and Meet Me in the Morning, before being joined by Jerry Fish for a rousing vaudeville rendition of Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35. Fish kicked his onstage antics into overdrive, relishing the chorus of “Everybody must get stoned” with hectic fervour.
The sheer volume of classic songs Dylan has penned over the years could never compressed into a single show, but Dylan Fest mostly steered away from the obvious choices – there was no Forever Young, no Blowin’ in the Wind, no Hurricane. But the passion in the performances, backed by some of the most evocative lyrics of all time, meant that this didn’t matter. A real highpoint of the show was James Vincent McMorrow, who took on Stuck Inside Of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again and Obviously 5 Believers from ‘Blonde on Blonde’. The reverence of McMorrow for the music was evident in his elegant and measured delivery, but he did just enough to capture the emotional core of both tracks, making them his own for the night.
While the range of Irish talent on show was no doubt impressive, it is clear that many of the audience in attendance were there for the big international names Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. of The Strokes. The guitarists appeared separately at first. Valensi with the slow moving Isis from ‘Desire’. Hammond followed this up with the livelier Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright featuring some very Strokes style guitar work added on – which made a surprisingly good combination. The duo then took to the stage together with Positively 4th Street, alternating between leading vocals on the verses and hitting the chorus together.
The show reached its finale with the obligatory group sing-along, with all of the acts returning to the stage to for Knocking on Heaven’s Door. It may have felt a bit like some kind of awkward karaoke session, but the next song was anything but. I Shall Be Released was clearly intended to recall the ensemble performance of The Band’s Last Waltz concert – and it was indeed a monumental performance imbued with the passion that only an artist like Dylan could inspire in so many musicians.
In a way it was like witnessing an impromptu performance at a party, as if one person suddenly broke out in song and everyone else just got caught up in the momentum. It really seemed like what these musicians would really be doing if they all happened to end up at the same party. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, the Dylan fans in the audience or the Dylan fans on stage.