London, Friday June 8, 2018
The concept of this evening’s concert is the reason why I’m here tonight, but also the reason why I’m a bit sceptical: ‘Join us as James Riley performs one of popular music’s most controversial moments over two live shows… When Dylan went electric.’
Singer-songwriter James Riley and band are here to showcase Bob Dylan’s famous shift from being an acoustic folk singer to becoming an electric rock singer. First, Riley will play solo and acoustic, and then the band will join in and go electric. Riley asks us to pretend we’re at the legendary Gaslight Cafe in New York’s West Village, where Dylan played many of his early gigs before he launches into Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.
Early on in the evening, someone in the crowd shouts ‘Judas’. Of course, someone had to do it, and someone did. A reference to the concert Dylan did at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, where a member of the audience shouted ‘Judas’, because the folksters (is that a word?) thought Dylan had ‘betrayed’ his folk roots. Riley assures us, ‘ Don’t worry, we’ll get to it.’
The vibe in the room is great. We’re a young and old(er) crowd of hipsters and hippies, and whatever else. Riley plays some of Dylan’s most loved songs with great confidence and skill. He sings the well-written verses of poetry clearly and with conviction. Riley may not have Dylan’s snarling, raspy, antagonistic vocal delivery, but instead, he sings the songs with a soulful and gentle voice. And it works.
We are taken through Dylan’s musical landscape with masterpieces like Blowin’ in the Wind, Song to Woody, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and The Times They Are a-Changin’.
After the intermission, the electric set begins with Mr Tambourine Man. But not before another shout of ‘Judas’, to which Riley responds, ‘There is electric on this one.’ And then another string of some of the most legendary songs ever written follows like She Belongs to Me, Maggie’s Farm, Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, Just Like a Woman, and ending the evening with, no surprise there, Like a Rolling Stone.
Though this has nothing to do with tonight’s concert, this is the evening of the morning where it was announced that Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide. Being someone whose TV-shows I’ve followed for years, he’s on my mind during tonight’s concert. There’s something poignant about hearing these great songs in a room full of an appreciative crowd, and thinking that music really is therapeutic and healing.
Which leads me to another point this evening hammers home: James Riley does what every live performer should do, and what Bob Dylan doesn’t do, at least not anymore; he engages with his audience. So, though it would have been amazing to see Dylan at The Gaslight Cafe in New York in the early sixties, or on tour with The Band in the mid-sixties, seeing someone like Riley, who performs tonight’s choice of songs as if they were his own, is quite possibly the optimal way of seeing Dylan’s extraordinary catalogue of songs being performed.
James Riley setlist