Bob Dylan Live—Without Bob Dylan

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
• Silvio
• 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
• Mozambique
• Meet Me in The Morning
• In The Garden
• Masters of War
• Like a Rolling Stone

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posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 24, 2017  11:03am

If the music started before 9 PM I would be able to sit in on this local treasure, Cafe Nine.

posted by: ThePerf on July 25, 2017  10:42am

GREAT review! I have been going to see Dylan since 1963, most recently at the end of 2014 (am waiting for him to put the Sinatra-Tin Pan Alley songs away before I return). But I get my Bob dose now in cover concerts, and Tony Trischka is a terrific source. We’ve seen him 2X at house concerts in Trenton, NJ (where we live); once an all-Dylan program (like but not identical to the set list) and once, part BD, part Beatles, part originals, part standard blues. An exceptional small group, great sound, and really thoughtful interpretations of the originals (not just “covers”), and of course, notwithstanding the 45-50 times I have seen Bob, some ones I have never heard him sing/play (Oxford, Groom, Skyline Rag, Mozambique). I can’t wait til he returns here next year (Curious: did someone play the tuba on RDW?)

posted by: ThePerf on July 25, 2017  10:52am

Fwiw, his set list from house concert in Trenton, 7/6/16/ Close, not identical>>

Song for Woody/Fixin’ to Die
Masters of War
Oxford Town
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Ballad of a Thin Man
Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35
The Mighty Quinn
Nashville Skyline Rag
Time Passes Slowly
Meet Me in the Morning
In the garden
The groom’s Still waiting at the Altar
Love Sick
Early Roman Kings
Like a Rolling Stone

posted by: LisaK on July 27, 2017  11:29pm

ThePerf: Great review indeed, and a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable concert. As Paul Bass advises: “The musicians didn’t play Dylan covers; they made the songs their own while respecting the songs’ DNA. Just the way Dylan would.” And yes, bassist Jared Engel played a resonant tuba on RDW… with thoughtful interpretations all around. I’m already looking forward to Tony Trischka and the Early Roman Kings’ next chariot stop in New Haven. And an inspired first set by Five in the Chamber!

posted by: ThePerf on July 28, 2017  8:14am

Lisa K, glad to read your thoughts. Yes, Tony is definitely worth the evening whenever he is near you. We are so fortunate that the home in which he does the house concerts in Trenton is no more than a five minute drive from us!

He is also always very happy to meet his fans, so if u see him again, tell him how much u enjoyed it. It will make his evening!