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MusicMusic ReviewCat Power plugged into Dylan's electric shocker with pitch-perfect...

Cat Power plugged into Dylan’s electric shocker with pitch-perfect tribute

Known for her choice covers, the musician recreated 1966's (in)famous ‘Royal Albert Hall’ concert at the Herbst.

Chan Marshall appreciates the power of a good cover.

Known by the moniker Cat Power, the 52-year-old singer-songwriter has long relished incorporating reworked cuts from peers and predecessors, such as this achingly gorgeous take on Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love,” into her output.

In 2022, Covers marked her third full-length release devoted to the craft, joining 2000’s The Covers Record and 2008’s Jukebox. All three showcased Marshall’s talent for eloquent, sparse rearrangements, though she’s taking a far more faithful approach with her latest undertaking: a full-length recreation of Bob Dylan’s infamous 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert.

Spotlighting a seminal night during the period when Dylan “went electric” — in this case, by switching from a solo acoustic set to an electric one backed by a full band midway through the night — the hallowed bootleg recording of this show is, in truth, a mislabeled tape of a May 17 show that occurred at Manchester Free Trade Hall the same year. Leaning into taper’s lore, Marshall stuck with Royal Albert Hall, where she debuted her performance of Dylan’s set to much acclaim back in 2022, followed by the release of a companion live album last fall.

Last Friday night, a sold-out crowd at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre was treated to an encore performance of Marshall’s deeply reverential ode to the voice of a generation. Scheduled near the end of two-month North American tour devoted to her Dylan set, it was a privilege to witness Marshall channel one of her idols at such a pivotal early moment in the latter’s career. 

The first half of the night was, admittedly, a slow burn. Kicking off with Marshall at the microphone and two bandmates on an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, respectively, early highlights of the evening included impassioned takes of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Desolation Row.” 

Though gorgeous, the promise of amplified delights to come coated the show’s first half with a thick air of anticipation. Far from the utter shock it was proven to be for some portion of Dylan’s original audiences—you can hear someone scream “Judas!” on the original tape after Dylan plugs in back in 1966—the drum kit, organ, and electric guitars spread across the stage during the acoustic portion of Marshall’s show served mostly as the musical equivalent of Chekov’s gun. 

Nonetheless, over the course of the show’s first half, Marshall’s marvelous voice made wonders of insightful lyrics that continue to resonate today. Possibly fighting an illness of some kind, she gamely gave it her all amid many gulps of tea as she guided the night to its seminal mid-set pivot following “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

It took only a brief blackout for the rest of Marshall’s band to join her and kick off the evening’s high-wattage second act. 

Doing their best impression of Dylan’s backing group, the Band (nee the Hawks), they ripped through classics like “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the 1966 live tour exclusive “Tell Me, Momma.” Proving to be the well-oiled machine you’d expect of a Marshall-led band with this many dates already under their belts, the sextet included exceptional work from keyboardist Jordan Summers. As he rotated between a Hammond B-3 organ and a Wurlitzer, it felt as though a half-century of music history was folding in upon itself as Summers coaxed decadent squeals and scintillating solos from his instruments.

Contextualized in a format that included no opener and no encore, the experience was, all things considered, an inspired success as an exercise in musical immersion. 

At a time when people seem willing to spend absurd sums of money on tickets to don headsets and view virtual renderings of famous paintings, the prospect of seeing one genius musician perform a tribute to another seems an infinitely better return on one’s investment. That was certainly the feeling at the Herbst, where Marshall was met with a standing ovation prior to playing the last song of her set.

“I don’t think I made him mad,” Marshall allowed, once the clapping finally died down. Ever humble in assessing her performance through Dylan’s eyes, she couldn’t help but add: “Well… at least this time.”

Who can say what a mind as impenetrable as Bob Dylan’s would think? Fortunately, it’s a moot point. 

Though Marshall’s affinity for Dylan is absolute, Friday night’s performance wasn’t about a set a man played in England nearly 60 years ago. Instead, it felt far more like an opportunity for the artist known as Cat Power to express herself by means beyond her own notes and words. In less capable hands, such an exercise could easily be construed as a mere side-project or one-off fancy. But on Friday night, the featured voice was unmistakable.

Following her brief remarks, someone in the Herbst gamely shouted “Judas!” 

With that, Marshall and company kicked into the classic opening notes of closer “Like a Rolling Stone.” How did it feel? Sublime.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Zack Ruskin
Zack Ruskin
Zack Ruskin is an award-winning drugs and culture reporter living in San Francisco. His bylines on weed, music, books, and more can be found at Leafly, San Francisco Chronicle, Variety, KQED, Cannabis Now, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, California Leaf Magazine, and numerous other publications. From 2016-2021, he wrote SF Weekly’s “Pacific Highs” cannabis column, which was recognized with a California Journalism Award in the Best Column category (2020). Follow him on Twitter: @zackruskin

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