It turns out you can still hear a great live Bob Dylan show — as long as he’s not there.
He wasn’t there Saturday night at Cafe Nine.
Instead, a quartet led by legendary bluegrass banjoist Tony Trischka was there. The quartet calls itself the Early Roman Kings. It plays nothing but Bob Dylan music. And, at least Saturday night, it played the music with grace, power, and inventiveness, weaving new meaning together with old conviction.
Bob Dylan used to do that. For decades. He took his sprawling songbook and, on tour, played his songs new ways, often with younger musicians, tailoring them to a live audience. Dylan still tours constantly, and deserves props for that. But even as a lifelong diehard Dylan devotee who counts the bard’s 1972 concert with the Band at Madison Square Garden and his Oh Mercy tour launch at Toad’s Place in 1989 as the most memorable concerts of a lifetime, I gave up paying real money to watch him croak and stand stiffly at a keyboard after one last witness at his 2004 show at the Yale Bowl.
But Dylan’s music — so richly textured in its produced album tracks — still cries out to be reworked live by musicians who channel his unique blend of roots music and rock ‘n roll and poetic inspiration. Trischka, who’s been mixing bluegrass with other American musical forms since the 1970s, and his quartet proved just the ticket at Cafe Nine, New Haven’s answer to the Greenwich Village clubs where Dylan got his start more than a half-century ago.
The overall vibe of the night was Basement Tapes-ish — freewheeling homemade jamming, as evidenced in the video at the the top of this article of the group’s rendition of “Quinn The Eskimo.”
The quartet — Trischka on banjo and pedal steel, metal-turned-bluegrass guitarist Stash Wyslouch, drummer Sean Trischka, and bassist Jared Engel — dipped into each genre of Dylan’s six-decade journey from Woody Guthrie folkie to psychedelic maven, from country balladeer to blues rocker to born-again Christian scold to Sinatra crooner, with continual detours along the way. (Wyslouch and Sean Trischka shared the main vocal duties.) The musicians didn’t play Dylan covers; they made the songs their own while respecting the songs’ DNA. Just the way Dylan would.
And they chose wisely. That became clear early on, when Trischka picked a song from (in my opinion) Dylan’s most inspired, original, beautiful, and underappreciated album, New Morning. He didn’t choose the most obvious numbers, either, like “If Not For You” or “New Morning” or the oft-covered “The Man In Me.” He chose “Time Passes Slowly.” A “cover” version would have featured piano; Dylan’s piano playing gave that song and most of the album their driving spirit. Here instead Trishcka’s banjo licks and especially Wyslouch’s druggy guitar solos put the song, appropriately enough, into a time warp. (A crowd member actually requested “If Dogs Run Free,” a masterpiece of scat and free verse on the produced album, but hard to imagine live.)
Similarly, Dylan’s guitar drove the intensity of the original version of “When The Ship Comes In.” Piano played that role in a version resuscitated on Volume 1 of The Bootleg Series. At Cafe Nine Saturday night, Trischka’s banjo took its place, and took it into a different direction. Not better. Not worse. Different, and worth coming out to hear.
The banjo also saved “Blowin’ In The Wind” from drifting into hackneyed territory. Trischka played it gentle, solo, without singing, as the audience provided the lyrics.
The obvious selection from Blood on The Tracks would have been “Tangled Up in Blue” or perhaps “Idiot Wind” or, for a bluegrass-oriented combo, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Until you heard Trischka’s quartet dive into “Meet Me In the Morning” and keep jamming. Then it became obvious: Any true Dylan tribute must exhume the blues roots that have been a constant through his changing moods. (The group did it again with a fired-up “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar.”)
New Haven dobro wizard Stacy Phillips, who played with Trischka in a 1970s band called Breakfast Special, came onstage to join the quartet for a straight-ahead bluegrass jam on “Nashville Skyline Rag.”
The set ended (not counting the encore) with a haunting rendition of “Masters of War.” This one wasn’t just different from the original. It was better. Rather than the noisy full-blast strum and shout of Dylan’s 1963 recording, it started quiet, with upright bass and banjo and harmony vocals that built to a fury, quieted back down, built back up, bringing the audience along for the ride.
If you’re still reading this review, you’re probably as hopeless a Dylan freak as I am, so you might even be interested in seeing the whole set list in order. Here goes:
• Song to Woody
• Fixin’ To Die
• Subterranean Homesick Blues
• Time Passes Slowly
• Oxford Town
• The Mighty Quinn
• When The Ship Comes in
• The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar
• Nashville Skyline Rag
• Blowin’ In The Woind
• Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
• Love Sick
• Ballad of A Thin Man
• Meet Me in The Morning
• In The Garden
• Masters of War
• Like a Rolling Stone