A few years ago, on a cover CD, Thea Gilmore presented the readers of Uncut magazine with one of the best Dylan cover versions ever recorded. Now, as a 70th birthday tribute to Dylan, she has incorporated her reading of ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’ into nothing less than than a complete re-creation of the album from which it derived – John Wesley Harding.
Reuniting with guitarist Robbie McIntosh and drummer Paul Beavis, who both played on the ‘Augustine’ cover back in 2002, Thea and her husband, bassist and producer Nigel Stonier went back into the studio in February to record the rest of the album tracks. In the sleevenotes, Gilmore questions the wisdom of the enterprise: ‘Can one – should one – attempt to re-record, reinterpret, a forty-year old, somewhat legendary piece of work, a piece of work which could be argued to be inseparable from its author? Probably not’.
Fortunately, Thea Gilmore threw caution to the winds and has come up with a stunning new interpretation of one of her favourite Bob Dylan albums. She explains:
I’ve always thought that, whilst clearly other Dylan albums may have more ‘famous’ and ‘iconic’ songs, and more of those moments that are alleged to have changed music forever, [John Wesley Harding] is his most sustained, satisfying record. It runs beautifully from start to finish, songs bounce off each other, characters seemed unfathomably but implicitly linked, and the sense of earthiness and economy in Bob’s lyrics is startling.
Personally, I have to admit that JWH is not an album that I often play in its entirety. I find its spartan arrangements and opaque lyrics a hard listen. I’ve never really understood what’s going on in most of the songs, though I think Thea is spot on when she talks about the way that the ‘characters seemed unfathomably but implicitly linked’. Until the last two songs (that seem to belong to a different album altogether, perhaps Dylan’s next, Nashville Skyline) it’s like entering a world complete in its imagining: a surreal, biblical American frontier landscape. What does it mean, ‘to breathe the air around Tom Paine’? Or to dream you saw St. Augustine ‘with a blanket underneath his arm and a coat of solid gold?’
From my standpoint, therefore, it’s an advantage that Thea Gilmore does not attempt to replicate the sparseness of the original album in its entirety. The arrangements on her album are sonically varied, ranging from the title track, with mandolin and Dylanish harmonica to out-and-out rockers like ‘Drifter’s Escape’ and ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ (sounding like Neil Young and Crazy Horse at full throttle) to ‘Dear Landlord’ sung beautifully with simple piano accompaniment. Thea’s vocals are outstanding, too, on her passionate rendition of ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’, with its ringing, Byrds-redux guitar chords.
Thea’s vocals are excellent on all the songs, but the album’s success is also due to the quality of the band and the arrangements. For the album sessions Thea reassembled the team that had produced the mighty version of ‘St Augustine’ for Uncut – Robbie McIntosh on guitar, Paul Beavis on drums and Nigel Stonier on bass. Robbie McIntosh’s coruscating lead guitar lifts the hairs on the back of your neck, most especially on ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ and ‘The Wicked Messenger’. Elsewhere, piano, dobro and finger-picked mandolin add colour to tracks such as ‘Dear Landlord’, ‘I Am A Lonesome Hobo’ and ‘Down Along The Cove’ while Gilmore’s jaunty take on ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is pitched midway between Dylan’s and the Hendrix classic, more relaxed than the latter (who could compte with that one!) with delicate guitar fills.
It’s a great Gilmore album and a superb birthday tribute to his Bobness. JWH is Thea’s favourite Dylan album, and on these versions she perfectly inhabits, as she expresses it herself, ‘the myths, the dramatis personae of these songs, the hovering whispers of Old Testament morals, the howls of despair and elation from outcast souls so affecting’.
Back in 1967, Dylan’s original album could not have been a greater shock: the contrast between Blonde on Blonde’s noisesome richness and the taut asceticism of John Wesley Harding was mind-boggling at the time. As Michael Gray has observed:
This album is no cheap thrill. It is, though, a most serious, darkly visionary exploration of the myths and extinct strengths of America; its Calvinist spirit gives it an eerie power in mixing the severely biblical with a surreal 19th century, American-pioneer ethos. Dylan comes across like a man who has arisen from Armageddon unscathed but sobered, to walk across an allegorical American landscape of small, poor communities working a dusty, ﬁerce terrain.
The album has been interpreted as Dylan’s stark rebuke to the ‘summer of love’. For sure, nothing could be further from a hippy-dippy daze than the apocalyptic vision of ‘All Along The Watchtower’, ending with the approaching finality of ‘the wind began to howl’. But it was the sparseness of the arrangements and the cryptic nature of the lyrics, with their hints of Dylan’s growing interest in things Biblical and his coming conversion to born-again Christianity, that came out of left-field. Dylan himself called JWH the ‘first biblical rock album’, and by all accounts at his home in Woodstock he had a huge Bible opened on raised wooden lectern. In ‘All Along The Watchtower’, Dylan draws on Isaiah 21:5-9:
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. … And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.
The album’s most haunting song, ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’ is baffling. It sounds both compassionate and filled with hatred for the man who ‘uses all his power to do evil’ and ‘with his fingers cheats…and lies with ev’ry breath’, yet who also ‘tramples through the mud’, ‘fills his mouth with laughing and … builds his town with blood’, whose ‘visions in the final end must shatter like the glass’.
So what are to make of this odd song cycle? Maybe:
The moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbour carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road
- Thea Gilmore: John Wesley Harding (review by Jeff Schwager)