Last night I finally caught up with a local musical phenomenon. John O’Connell’s Simply Dylan band has been amassing a growing following on Merseyside and then around the country since beginning as a modest project in 2011 to celebrate Dylan’s 70th birthday. After selling out the Cavern Club six times and several successful UK tours, I saw their rousing show at the Citadel in St Helens.
I’ll admit to a degree of scepticism before the show: though I’d never contemplate going to a show by the real Dylan anymore (voice shot, too many Frank Sinatra songs), I thought it unlikely that a show of Dylan covers would move me. But it did: Simply Dylan are Simply brilliant.
One thing I hadn’t taken in until the show began was that Simply Dylan are a band. Whereas I’d expected John O’Connell (lead singer of local blues and folk covers band Groundpig) to strum a guitar and perform Dylan songs solo, what ensued was a magnificent, well-paced show by a truly fine bunch of musicians. The Citadel is, by the way, a great venue – former music hall and Salvation Army citadel, it provides a warm and intimate setting for this sort of music.
O’Connell sometimes did perform solo, picking some mighty fine guitar on numbers from Blood on the Tracks, but this was primarily a full-blooded band show in which O’Connell, Simply Dylan’s modest and self-deprecating front man, gave the other musicians a chance to shine on solos. Judging from their website, the membership of Simply Dylan seems to be a bit of a moveable feast, but we were particularly fortunate in St Helens to have the outstanding Kath Ord (fresh from playing with the Unthanks) adding fire and brimstone on violin and saxophone, as well as memorable vocals, including an outstanding duet with John on ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’.
Apart from the wonderful Kath Ord on fiddle and sax, the rest of the band consisted of Phil Larkin on keyboards (his were the first swirling chords we heard as they opened with ‘Positively 4th Street’), Mark Byrne on drums, and Paul Catherall on bass (another member of Groundpig, and as we heard from John when he introduced ‘Buckets of Rain’ later, head boy at Roscommon Street, the school they both attended).
As the band kicked into ‘Positively 4th Street’ as the opening number, my immediate thought was, ‘Well I didn’t expect that!’ And the surprises kept coming, as John and the band didn’t simply roll out the best-known or most popular songs from the Dylan songbook, but a fair few of the less well-known – including several of his Bobness’s longest, which must tax John’s brain cells on every performance night.
If the first number was unexpected, the next was even more so: the lengthy saga of ‘Lily, Rosemary and The Jack Of Hearts’ from Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece Blood On The Tracks. It was on this rousing rendition that we first got to hear Kath Ord’s soaring, swooping violin which would lend sparkle to songs throughout the evening. In selecting material for the programme, the band gave us songs from all eras of Dylan’s career, with a notable concentration on the late ’70’s repertoire with large portions of Blood On The Tracks, Desire and Street Legal.
Another thing to be said about Simply Dylan is that O’Connell is not into mimicry: he does not attempt impressions of Dylan’s distinctive vocal inflections, while the band, whether judged as a unit or as individuals, do not slavishly copy the originals, but are simply excellent musicians entering into the spirit of great music. Nor is this a tribute show in the sense of being peppered with deferential accounts of the great poet or how each song came to be written. Somewhat reserved and undemonstrative, John O’Connell offers only the briefest of introductions, leaving it to his guitar and harmonica to tell the story and his musicians to embellish the manuscript.
After the opening two numbers, the band gave us a pounding rendition of ‘Isis’ from Desire (later we would get tremendous accounts of ‘Sara’ and a blistering version of ‘Hurricane’ that opened the second set). Then, one of my favourites – but again an unusual choice – ‘Changing of the Guards’ from Street Legal, an album that later yielded ‘Baby Stop Crying’, before John swung into the title track of an album I have never liked, Slow Train Coming. At the end, someone yelled, ‘that song’s even more relevant now’ (to which there came the witty response, ‘great heckle!’), but I wondered where the original heckler’s politics lay. ‘ Slow Train Coming’ is Dylan at his judgemental worst and includes dodgy imagery of ‘Sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings’:
All that foreign oil controlling American soil
Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed
Sheiks walkin’ around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings
Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris
Perhaps the listener heard Dylan prophesy Donald Trump in the line about ‘Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters, Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition’.
At this point, most of the band left the stage, leaving John to a solo spot, supported by bassist Paul Catherall, his old sparring partner from Roscommon Street school and Groundpig. Switching guitars and tuning up, John explained that the guitar he was using was the exact same model as the one used by Dylan on Blood on the Tracks, where Dylan unusually ‘tuned it in D’. A lovely version of ‘Buckets of Rain’ followed (in the second half he would sing ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ off the same album).
Introducing the next song, John reminded us that it was ‘written by someone who was only 21 at the same time as the Beatles were writing ‘She Loves You’. It was ‘Masters of War’, sung with force and passion, a real hairs on back of neck moment. By this time it had become clear that the rambunctious St Helens audience were enjoying themselves mightily, giving thunderous applause to each number, and particularly to Kath Ord’s violin and sax interventions. It was clear, too, that the audience comprised a sizeable proportion of Simply Dylan camp followers and of expert Dylanophiles: evidence, the heckler who shouts out at the end of ‘Masters of War’ that John had got one word wrong. As if to confirm the foregoing observations, the first set ended with the audiience gradually taking over singing the words of ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ from John.
The second set opened with a storming version of ‘Hurricane’ I always marvel at how Dylan managed to compress the intricate details of how Rubin Carter came to be wrongfully convicted of murder into the cinematic, hurtling imagery of its verses. Here, I marvelled, too, at John’s abvility to recall this torrent of words. He managed the same feat with a tremendous account of ‘Desolation Row’.
An impeccable ‘Watching the River Flow’ followed, and then two highlights that once again showcased Kath Ord’s voice and violin. First up was ‘Make You Feel My Love’ which John introduced saying, ‘Kath’s going to sing an Adele song’. The only song from any album released by Dylan in the last two decades (It’s from 1997’s Time Out of Mind) it was transformed into a thing of great beauty by Kath’s vocal. Then came ‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’, worked up into a miraculous duet between Kath and John.
The concert ended on with boisterous takes on ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (Kath’s fiddle transforming the room into a rambunctious hoedown) and ‘Forever Young’ during which men not far off their pensions stomped and punched the air in front of the stage as if they were 17 again. Earlier in the set the band had played ‘My Back Pages’ with its chorus about being ‘so much older then, I’m younger than that now’. With the encores, those guys got a whole lot younger as rafter-shaking takes on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and (of course) ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ brought down the house. They swayed. They stamped. They roared, ‘How does it feel?’
Phenomenal. Simply Dylan are back in Liverpool for a big show at the Philharmonic Hall on August bank holiday, and I’ll be there.