The Royal Albert Hall Project / Jan. 12, 2008 / New York (World Financial Center)
In 1966 at London's Royal Albert Hall, Bob Dylan famously plugged in with a band called the Hawks (soon to become the Band) and was met with hisses, boos and curses of "Judas." Luckily, the crowd at NIn 1966 at London's Royal Albert Hall, Bob Dylan famously plugged in with a band called the Hawks (soon to become the Band) and was met with hisses, boos and curses of "Judas."
Luckily, the crowd at New York City's World Financial Center's Winter Garden was more receptive on Jan. 12, as an illustrious group of guitarists recreated Dylan's famed 15-song Albert Hall set to kick off the New York City Guitar Festival.
The Winter Garden is a high-ceilinged atrium, which, despite the best efforts of a talented group of musicians, is acoustically tough to fill. By the time the sound got past the fake palm trees, huge metal pillars and lofty glass ceiling and out to the audience, which was sprawled on the marble staircase and flanking the second level balcony, it often sounded muddy, like a 30-year-old record player. There were a few artists, though, that were able to overcome the challenge of room.
"I just took three shots of whiskey," Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers, said as he stood behind us, minutes before going on stage. He was no worse for the wear though, as his raspy and soulful voice made "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" sound sexier and more alive than anyone had been able to yet pull off in the echoing hall.
Next on the roster was Welsh artist Freeman, accompanied by NYGF veteran Brandon Ross on the soprano guitar. Freeman, recently signed to J Records, was hypnotizing. Boasting a rich, intense voice that host John Schaefer accurately compared in his introduction to a young Jeff Buckley, Freeman delivered a lovely and heartbreaking version of "Desolation Row," which left the crowd completely silent.
Kelly Joe Phelps did a sweet lullaby version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," tapping out the rhythm like a soft-shoed and sweet Savion Glover. Jim Lauderdale and John Levanthal pulled a little enthusiasm out of the sedate crowd with a traditional rocker rendition of "Tell Me, Momma," and, later, Belle & Sebastien's Stevie Jackson came back to the stage after a feedback-addled "Visions of Johanna" to accompany the lovely Laura Cantrell (pictured) on "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)."
Toshi Reagon brought the house down with a raucous "Like a Rolling Stone," which finally got the mix of old hippies and young hipsters on its feet. A stage tech in a silk Gallant/Wein Wire & Cable Local 3 IBEW jacket and a New York Giants hat came out from backstage to sway appreciatively as the gender-bending Reagon belted the tune.
The artists all came back to the stage for the encore, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," (which was not actually released until seven years after the Royal Albert show), led by Reagon. We counted at least 10 guitars, and it was hard not to laugh as Cantrell and Freeman struggled to share one of only three microphones with each other.
As the audience finally stood and crowded around the front of the stage, an entirely white-haired woman in Easy Spirit sneakers and a fanny pack stood up and danced with her husband with sweet abandon, in a way one could imagine she did to the same song nearly 40 years ago.
Here is the Royal Albert Hall set list:
"She Belongs To Me," Oakley Hall
"Fourth Time Around," Marshall Crenshaw
"Visions of Johanna," Stevie Jackson
"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," Jason Isbell
"Desolation Road," Freeman & Brandon Ross
"Just Like a Woman," the Last Town Chorus
"Mr. Tambourine Man," Kelly Joe Phelps
"Tell Me, Momma," Jim Lauderdale & John Levanthal
"I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met)," Laura Cantrell
"Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," Harry Manx & Kevin Breit
"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," Jesse Harris
"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," Chocolate Genius Inc.
"One Too Many Mornings," Lenny Kaye
"Ballad of a Thin Man," Richard Julian & Jim Campilongo
"Like a Rolling Stone," Toshi Reagon
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door," ensemble