This is the DVD companion to British rock crooner Bryan Ferry’s acclaimed new album of Bob Dylan songs, Dylanesque. I actually saw the DVD before I heard the album, so my initial reflections on the project were unaffected by the CD release (the making of which was covered in the June issue of Mix—you can read it here. In the abstract I thought this might be a match made in heaven, and in fact it is: Ferry has always been a sensitive interpreter of other people’s material, bringing that undeniable elegance and élan to everything he does. He wraps that honey-smooth voice of his around Dylan’s lyrics and gives them new life; he uncovers the beautiful melodies Dylan wrote and gives them wings. This is not unusual in itself: many other singers have covered Dylan’s songs effectively through the years. It tales a special touch, however, to devote an entire album (and DVD) to interpretations of Dylan material.
The DVD—which was beautifully directed by Bob Smeaton, expertly recorded by Tim Roe and produced by longtime Roxy Music/Ferry associate Rhett Davies—was shot live on an (unnamed) studio/soundstage in England with a wonderfully versatile band: guitarists Chris Spedding, Leo Abrahams and Oliver Thompson—all masters of many moods and textures, from dreamy, ambient soundscapes to masterful slide and dynamic rock pickin’—pianist/music director Colin Good; session great Andy Newmark on drums; Guy Pratt on bass; and a quartet of female backup singers (two black, two white): Tara and Anna McDonald, Me’sha Bryan and Sarah Brown, whose work is lovely, often subtle, and tastefully mixed. Ferry also plays effective harmonica—pretty close to Dylan’s style, actually—on many songs.
As befits the perennially mellow Mr. Ferry, he is seated on a stool in the middle of the studio, reading lyrics off a music stand—yet he still feels completely in control of the proceedings; he has always had that sort of command. Of course, it would be hard to go wrong with a set of classic songs like this: The main 60-minute set is heavy on Dylan’s mid-‘60s output—“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Gates of Eden,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “All I Really Wanna Do,” “Positively 4th Street”; then dips into the late ‘60s for a Hendrix-inspired take on “All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi, more than Dylan, seems to have defined that tune); then to the ’70s for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and a surprisingly effective rockin’ version of “Simple Twist of Fate”; and concluding with a lovely reading of the 1997 ballad from Time Out of Mind, “Make You Feel My Love,” with just vocals, piano and atmospheric guitar.
Just as Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves to interpretations that cross centuries and styles (I’ve seen As You Like It done in punk-rock regalia; Henry V in hockey uniforms!), Dylan’s songs can seemingly fit into nearly any style and attitude. “Gates of Eden” is given a sober, stately treatment that nicely emphasizes the lyrics. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” has a distinct reggae feel (somewhat reminiscent of the Jerry Garcia Band’s versions). “All I Really Wanna Do” has a nearly baroque-sounding piano-guitar accompaniment that sits very nicely with the melody. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is given a driving arrangement that puts a cool new spin on a (perhaps) over-played warhorse. I’m not sure that Ferry’s “Positively 4th Street” comes close to capturing the bitterness of Dylan’s incredible original, but that’s a minor complaint. One could also quarrel with the occasional skipped verse, but since Dylan himself has been known to eviscerate his own tunes, perhaps that’s not a fair bust, either.
Throughout the video in brief interview segments, Ferry explains his own attraction to Dylan’s songs and why he chose the ones he did for this session; it’s always illuminating. The camaraderie of the band is evident, as well—though we rarely see Ferry specifically interacting with the players and singers, you can feel the unified vibe strongly: It really feels like a band, not just a singer and session pros.
The bonus tracks are nearly as a good as the main video, comprising a driving take on “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” (probably best known from Dylan’s appearance in The Last Waltz), another (very similar) version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a lovely run-through on the lilting New Morning tune “If Not For You,” and a video of one of Ferry’s previous stabs at covering Dylan—a rather awkward “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from 1973. Nice try, Bryan—I like you better now!
Highly recommended for both Ferry and Dylan fans!