Thea Gilmore, John Wesley Harding

Written for Wears the Trousers 21.06.11

Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday a few weeks back was marked, in part, by reflections on the essentially blokey nature of his observable fanbase. While largely true, this has done nothing to lessen the appeal of his songs as cover material for women from Mae West to Sheryl Crow, not to mention Cate Blanchett’s turn as the man himself in the 2007 biopic ‘I’m Not There’. This re-recording by Thea Gilmore of Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding then, isn’t a revolutionary move, but not a foolish one either. It follows Gilmore’s performance at a Dylan tribute concert earlier this year, as well as, all the way back in 2002, her acclaimed recording of his ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’. That song appears again on this album, as do guitarist Robbie McIntosh and drummer Paul Beavis, along with Thea’s longterm collaborator, bassist and producer, Nigel Stonier.

Dylan’s original record was characterised by an asceticism of sound and lyrics, imbued with pioneer spirit and Calvinist doctrine, and set in the small and scattered settlements of an often surreal nineteenth-century landscape. Clearly appreciative of, sensitive to, and in tune with the material here, Gilmore considers John Wesley Harding to be Dylan’s “most sustained, satisfying record… It runs beautifully from start to finish, songs bounce off each other, characters seem unfathomably but implicitly linked, and the sense of earthiness and economy in Bob’s lyrics is startling.”

That’s always a promising start, and Gilmore’s voice – by turns ethereal, burnished and breathless – lends itself well to the outlaw balladry and subversive morality tales garnished with biblical imagery that form the bulk of the album. To the bare instrumentation of the original are added abundant but sombre dark chords and resounding blasts of harmonica, as well as piano, dobro and mandolin. On ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest’, Gilmore replaces the original’s laconic delivery with a sprightlier vocal, with both her voice and the music nimbly exploring the narrative’s twists and turns. Any cover of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ will find it difficult to match the majesty of Hendrix’s version, but the loose and relaxed arrangement here is agreeable enough, a kicked-back canter towards the song’s forbidding horizon.

The album’s tapestry is deftly sewn without a dropped stitch, but, unfortunately, without any exceptionally pretty patterns either. The exhilarating stomp of ‘Drifter’s Escape’ is sufficiently different to catch the listener’s attention, but otherwise there isn’t much that stands out. The measured funereal peal of ‘Dear Landlord’, or the syrupy country swoon of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, does little to suggest itself as essential. While John Wesley Harding is another solid and admirable showing from Thea Gilmore, it does nothing revelatory with the material, standing as a plain homage rather than any more intriguing reworking. It’s an able, accomplished and perfectly enjoyable record for ardent fans of Dylan, Gilmore or both, but, to borrow from the lyrics of ‘All Along The Watchtower’, it’s hard to see it as any reason to get excited.

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