In 1998, director Gus Van Sant released a “shot-for-shot” remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 film Psycho. When asked the inevitable question of “Why?” Van Sant offered up a number of answers: it was an experiment, an elaborate prank, a craven “marketing scheme.” No matter how Van Sant told it, his Psycho seemed less a proper film and more an intellectual exercise in homage and imitation. It was, unsurprisingly, a critical disaster.

To be clear, Cat Power‘s song-for-song recreation of Bob Dylan’s 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert (more on those quotes in a minute) is not Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. It is not a marketing scheme and it is most decidedly not a disaster. And yet its multimedia existence—a 2023 album recorded live at the iconic London venue, a tour that stopped at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater Saturday night—raises the same question: Why?

Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” concert is certainly a worthy subject. Yes, this is the infamous tide-changing show from the singer’s 1966 world tour where he fully “went electric.” Yes, this is the show where the crowd enthusiastically applauded the acoustic opening half (“She Belongs To Me,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” etc.) and enthusiastically jeered the full-band closing half (“Tell Me, Momma,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” etc.). Yes, this is the show where someone called out “Judas!” from the crowd. And yes, this is the show that didn’t take place at London’s Royal Albert Hall at all, but at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. (Early bootlegs were mislabeled.) Even by Dylan standards, the “Royal Albert Hall” concert is a rich, knotty, and endlessly fascinating text.

Enter Cat Power, a.k.a. Chan Marshall. In 2022, the beloved indie singer was given a chance to play Royal Albert Hall. Already known for her covers (The Covers Record was released in 2000, Jukebox in 2008), Marshall used the opportunity to faithfully recreate Dylan’s 1966 show. The subsequent live album contained the same 15 songs, the same mid-set switch, and even the same “Judas!” jeer from the crowd. And on Saturday night, Marshall faithfully recreated that recreation. No need to puzzle out the set list—this was indeed the same 15 songs and the same mid-set switch. No intro, no encore. Just the Dylan show, nothing more needed. (Incredibly, no one we could hear yelled out “Judas!”)

Coming out to a sparsely decorated stage and accompanied by an acoustic guitar player and harmonica player (one Dylan became three Cat Power musicians), Marshall instantly enthralled the crowd with “She Belongs To Me.” That enthrallment continued for the entirety of the show’s first set: “4th Time Around,” “Visions Of Johanna,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Desolation Row,” “Just Like A Woman,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Marshall’s approach throughout was hushed and reverent, quietly coaxing out nuances and gently tweaking phrasings, but never straying too far from Dylan’s original renditions. Her otherworldly voice was the star here, embracing and practically smothering Dylan’s lyrics, all to startling effect. On the songs where she strayed most from the originals—”Visions Of Johanna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man”—Marshall seemed to be singing harmony with Dylan in absentia.

That absence was acutely felt during the show’s 45-minute opening half. A strange, sorrowful, and almost funereal mood seemed to hang over the performers and audience alike. Dylan is still very much alive, of course, and is as vital, rewarding, and impossible to pin down as ever. So perhaps Saturday’s show was undercut with a collective grief for an era long past? A longing for the kind of one-to-one show Dylan himself would never do today? A sense of revere for a moment in time when, if you believe history’s broad strokes, rock and roll became “rock.” “Look out the saints are comin’ through,” Marshall/Dylan sang. “And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

The show’s electric half—featuring Marshall and a six-piece band—was anything but hushed. The group leapt from “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the raucous “Tell Me, Momma” with hardly a pause in between. The latter song is itself fascinating; it was performed exclusively during Dylan’s ’66 tour, never officially recorded, and never performed by Dylan again. In the hands of Marshall and company it was a jolt of electricity, with the singer’s previously delicate vocals blowing out and distorting the Pabst’s sound system. Not that Dylan needed to be proven right nearly 60 years later, but it should be noted that on Saturday night, the sudden change in volume and amplification was applauded, not jeered.

And so it went for the rest of the electric numbers: “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “One Too Many Mornings,” “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” and, of course, “Like A Rolling Stone.” Marshall’s band was the star during this stretch, blasting and careening through the suddenly rowdy affair. The enlivened mood even got to the singer; she subbed “Milwaukee” for “New York City” during “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and preceded the show-closing “Like A Rolling Stone” with a plea to “fight the power any way you can.”

Which brings us back to the question of “Why?” Why recreate not just one or two songs, but an entire concert? Is Marshall, like Gus Van Sant—or, hell, Dylan himself—pulling an elaborate stunt? Engaging in an intellectual exercise in homage and imitation? In interviews about her “Royal Albert Hall” album and tour, Marshall has provided a more direct explanation: she’s simply a big Dylan fan. If there’s more at play here, more than adoration and respect, more than a fan sharing her love (and her own gifts) with other fans, she isn’t letting on.

And maybe that’s just as well. Taking a complicated original and distilling it to its simplest pleasures? Even the man himself would be impressed with that trick.

Oh, and thumbs-up on your choice of post-show dining, Cat Power.


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