Monday, 6 June 2011

Thea Gilmore - John Wesley Harding (Album Review 2011)

Not every musician has the audacity to cover Bob Dylan songs but Thea Gilmore has gone a step further by covering a whole album. And that album is the much-praised John Wesley Harding. The record that brought the world the wonderful All Along The Watchtower (a year after its release this would be covered by Jimi Hendrix in what remains one of the best cover versions of all time) was the start of Dylan’s journey into country from his early folk roots. This crossover of musical styles and influences is perfect material for Gilmore.

Dylan said of John Wesley Harding that he actually wanted to record it with a full band. The reality was that it was almost a solo recording. Much of the original is just Dylan, who provides harmonica, piano and guitar as well as vocals, and a simple drum/bass accompaniment. So the final result was much more stripped down than he wanted. In response to this Gilmore has mostly shied away from the quiet intimate arrangement and approaches the whole project full-blooded and head-on.  In addition to Gilmore’s crisp and direct vocals, the guitar-work from Robbie McIntosh is excellent. The effect is an astonishing tribute through reinvention.

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is the song that started this all; Thea having recorded it before as part of her Songs From The Gutter covers album. Apparently Bruce Springsteen described it was one of the great Dylan covers. That aside, it doesn’t disappoint. Likewise the magnificent All Along The Watchtower captures the twisted darkness perfectly with Gilmore’s delicate vocals riding the turbulent production. To complete the best trio on the album, The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest is brilliant poetry from start to finish.

Elsewhere the reinvention is more obvious. The simple piano-led Dear Landlord is given a slight jazz treatment within the blues melody. Drifter’s Escape is a great modern ‘soft-rock’ take, all fuzzy guitars and pounding drums. As is the equally frantic harmonica stomp of The Wicked Messenger, also faster and more direct than the original, and As I Went Out One Morning has all of the same vocal arrangement with added guitar injection. But where required, Gilmore is closer to Dylan’s material. I Pity The Poor Immigrant still packs a political punch and Gilmore delivers the message as it was intended. Closer I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight is a lighter note to finish.

With her version of John Wesley Harding Thea Gilmore has managed to achieve two things: retain the spirit of Bob Dylan’s original and smooth out all the rough edges. The strength of the original is the terrifyingly acute song writing and Gilmore goes to great lengths to preserve the essence of the narrative – each song is a story and each story delivers vibrant characters from a long lost age. Naturally there would be many who will say that this is the easy option for Gilmore and that attempting to cover a seminal work is both foolish and divisive, but this was always a double-edged sword. Hopefully people will take this for what it is: to coincide with Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, a celebration of the life of one of the greatest songwriters this world has ever produced.

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