James Riley: The Story of Bob Dylan – Folk Goes Electric, Blues Kitchen, Brixton, London, June 8, 2018

The concept of this evening’s concert is the reason why I’m here in the first place, but also the reason I’m a bit sceptical: ‘Join us as James Riley performs one of popular music’s most controversial moments over two live shows… When Dylan went electric.’

Singer-songwriter James Riley and his band showcase Dylan’s notable shift from being an acoustic folk singer to becoming an electric rock singer. First, Riley will play solo and acoustic, and then the band will join in and go electric. Before he launches into Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, Riley asks us to pretend we’re at the legendary The Gaslight in New York’s West Village, where Dylan played many of his early gigs.

Early in the concert, someone in the crowd shouts ‘Judas’. Of course, someone had to do it. A reference to the show Dylan did at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 where a member of the audience shouted ‘Judas’, because the folksters (!) thought Dylan had ‘betrayed’ his folk roots. Riley says, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get to it’.

The vibe in the room is excellent, among young and old(er), hipsters and hippies, and all the rest. Riley plays some of Dylan’s most loved songs with great confidence and skill. He sings the well-written verses of poetry with conviction. Riley may not have Dylan’s snarling, raspy, antagonistic vocal delivery; instead, he sings the songs with a more soulful and gentle voice. And it works.

Riley leads us through Dylan’s musical landscape with masterpieces like Blowin’ in the WindSong to WoodyA Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and The Times They Are a-Changin’.

After the intermission, the electric set begins with Mr Tambourine Man. But not before another shout of ‘Judas’, to which Riley responds, ‘There is electric on this one’. And then another string of some of the most legendary songs ever written follows as She Belongs to MeMaggie’s FarmStuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues AgainJust Like a Woman, and ending the evening with, no surprise there, Like a Rolling Stone.

Though this has nothing to do with tonight’s concert, this is the evening of the morning where it was announced that Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide. Being someone whose TV shows I’ve followed for years, he’s on my mind during tonight’s concert. There’s something poignant about hearing these terrific songs in a room full of an appreciative crowd and thinking that music is therapeutic and healing.

This leads me to another point this evening hammers home: James Riley does what every live performer should do, and what Bob Dylan doesn’t do, at least not anymore; he engages with his audience. It would have been amazing to see Dylan at The Gaslight in New York in the early sixties or with The Band in the mid-sixties. But seeing someone like Riley performing tonight’s choice of songs as if they were his own is possibly the best way to experience Dylan’s extraordinary catalogue of songs these days.

James Riley setlist
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