Release Date: 2019
Label: Talking Elephant
Format: CD / DD / DSP
31st August 2019 marked the 50th Anniversary of Bob Dylan’s iconic appearance at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival of Music, in front of 150,000 messiah-starved festival goers. In recognition of this auspicious occasion, the All Wight Now project team organised and presented the second in their series of events intended to commemorate the Isle of Wight Festivals of 1968, 1969 and 1970, and invited Ashley Hutchings, founding father of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band, and Grand Vizier of English folk-rock to be the event director.
It was an inspired choice – back in 2015 Bob Dylan had publicly recognised Ashley as not only the single most important figure in English Folk Rock, but also acknowledged his role in producing some of the best versions of Dylan’s songs. High praise indeed. Prior to the 2019 All Wight Now event, Dylan had contacted Ashley with an unpublished, unperformed poem, written more than 50 years ago, entitles Echo of the North Country. The poem related to Dylan’s teenage sweetheart, Echo Helstrom, and it became clear from the words of the poem that Echo was the subject of the song Girl From the North Country, finally solving a mystery that has challenged Dylanologists for many years.
The eclectic bill for the 2019 All Wight Now event included the great Richard Thompson, Wishbone Ash, Kossoff: The Band Plays On, Donna Walmsley, Blair Dunlop, Jacqui McShee, Edward II, The Ale Marys and Banter. To close the show, Ashley had put together a band specifically for the occasion: Dylancentric, featuring (in addition to Ashley on bass and vocals) Ruth Angell on violin, vocals and guitar, Ken Nicol on vocals and guitars, Blair Dunlop (Ashley’s son) on vocals and guitars, Guy Fletcher on violin, mandolin and drums and Jacob Stoney on keyboards.
It is probably appropriate at this point that I own up to a certain bias. Ashley Hutchings has been a major influence upon my lifestyle choices ever since I was introduced to the Morris On album by my guitar tutor back in late 1973. In addition to being a significant presence in my music collection, he started a quest which has resulted in my attendance at every Cropredy Festival since 1979 and has influenced most of my personality-defining hobbies, including morris dancing and canal cruising. He probably even had an indirect influence on my choice of home address. So any of my reviews of his music will obviously be written from the point of view of a convert.
But on to the album. Ashley has chosen nine selections to represent the evening’s performance. With the exception of the Hutchings/Nicol composition, Wings, all are Bob Dylan numbers.
I suppose that my expectations were set by my previous exposure to the Dylan interpretations on Steve Gibbons’s Dylan Project albums which, although excellent in their own way, tend to rock in a certain style and strongly feature Gibbons’s quasi-Dylan vocal styling. Maggie’s Farm, the opening number on the Dylancentric set tends to reinforce this expectation with its driving drum/base backing and electric guitar and keyboard breaks providing solid support to Ken Nicol’s drawly vocal. However, the seven other Dylan songs on the album are all presented the melodic, precise, Anglicised style so familiar to Hutchings followers.
The sound is typified by mainly acoustic lead instruments, deftly supported by haunting violin and tasteful mandolin interjections, grounded upon plodding bass and occasional drums and frequently leading into soaring crescendos of electric guitar or keyboard soloing.
The sublime cover of Girl From the North Country is typical of this approach, as is Not Dark Yet. Both feature vocal leads from Blair with initially sparse acoustic backing and both build gradually to end in in full-on soloing; violin in the case Girl From the North Country (and Echo would have been surely awestruck!) and electric guitar in the case of Not Dark Yet. Masters of War similarly builds ominously throughout the song, almost in a manner reminiscent of an advancing tank.
Sooner or Later features lovely vocals from Blair and Ruth and some wonderful swirling organ sounds which (surely deliberately) recall Al Kooper’s contributions to the Highway 61 album. Ruth takes lead vocal on Mr Tambourine Man and does so confidently, forcefully and pleasingly, with her Derbyshire accent clearly detectable and the vocal delivery is further enhanced by the 3-4 part harmonies in the chorus sections. This version is SO different to the Byrds version that we all know and love, but is equally definitive; it actually had me singing along – something I rarely do (with good reason!)
Wings, the only non-Dylan selection on the album first saw light of day back in 1997, when it was chosen to be the opening song of Fairport’s 30th Anniversary set at Cropredy. I loved the song then and I love it now! Ashley’s vocal tells the story of himself and his musical co-voyagers and their development from naïve, adventurous youth into experienced, world-wise (or weary) adulthood and beyond. I particularly enjoyed the added reference to Dave Swarbrick’s Flying Fiddle Strings in the second verse!
The final cut on the album is Lay Down Your Weary Tune, sung by Ashley. This is one of Fairport’s earliest Dylan covers and was part of the session they recorded for their first radio appearance, broadcast on BBC’s Top Gear show on 24 November 1967. Indeed, it all comes round again!
Dylancentric is a wonderfully entertaining album which certainly made me wish that I could have been present on the Isle of Wight back in August.
Ashley Hutchings: Official Website