Photo above by Tim Freeman, „The Old Lockup„, see also the acknowledgement at the end of the article
The Dylan-Project: The beginnings
A nocturnal decision with consequences
Sometimes very long-term projects arise from rather casual conversations. In this group is a conversation between Steve Gibbons and his former bandmate Dave Pegg, just before Christmas 1997. After a concert (according to Dave Pegg’s autobiography it was a Fairport Convention concert- according to Steve Gibbons in the liner notes to the CD „The Dylan Project“ it was a joint „inpromptu gig with Peggy“, which was held because he, Gibbons, had missed the concert for Dave Peggs‘ fiftieth), they sat together for a few pints of Guinness.
When Steve mentioned that he would like to record a whole album of Dylan songs, Peggy invited him to his studio. Dave Pegg also suggested that Simon Nicole, who is not only an excellent guitarist but also a great admirer of Dylan, should be involved. Steve then persuaded his old sideman P.J. Wright and Dave Pegg his two Fairport Convention colleagues Rick Sanders and Chris Leslie as well as drummer Gerry Conway to join in.
Dylan songs in the studio, Dylan live at the NEC
It took a little while to put the plan into action. On five days in June 1998 the time had come and they went into the studio.
As chance would have it, Bob Dylan played at the National Exhibition Center (NEC) during those days, specifically on June 24, 1998. Of course the band didn’t miss that. As you can still hear on bootlegs today, it was a memorable gig where Dylan – unlike on many other occasions – was also good in voice. This concert, where Van Morrsions accompanied Dylan on „Knockin` On Heavens Door“, seems to have given the band additional impetus. P.J. Wright comments:
I was spellbound and he was wuz fab.
Fifteen songs, mostly from the 1960s
However, the concert seems to have had no influence on the selection of songs recorded for the album. With the exception of the song „Highway 61 Revisited“ there is no overlap between the setlist of the concert and the songs on the CD. Of 19 songs recorded with Mark Tucker at the mixing desk, fifteen made it onto the CD. These were:
- Colours To The Mast
- When The Ship Comes In
- Simple Twist Of Fate
- Highway 61 Revisited
- It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
- 4th Time Around
- I Am A Lonesome Hobo
- Peggy Day
- Stuck Inside The Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
- Dark Eyes
- Down Along The Cove
- Absolutely Sweet Marie
- I Want You
- Ring Them Bells
So the focus was clearly on songs from the 1960s.
One critical question and two answers
The result is amazing: Steve Gibbons‘ voice is very similar to Bob Dylan’s. Sometimes you have to listen twice to be sure that the original is not singing here!
But that’s exactly why the question must be allowed, what sense does it make to record the songs again with such a singer? After all, you might as well listen to the originals!
But there are two good answers to this question:
- On the one hand the voice is very similar, but different, one would even like to say: better. A critic once described it that Gibbons sings with the voice of Dylan, which the later had before it „went to shit“. There are also listeners who see the essential difference between the voice of Bob Dylan and Steve Gibbons in the fact that with Gibbons you understand what he is singing about. The lyrics, which are often mumbled only casually by His Bobness himself, are pointedly presented by Steve Gibbons, one might even say celebrated. Probably the best example on this CD of how the narration of a song can be raised to a whole new level by this is „I am a Lonesome Hobo“.
- And there is a lot happening musically as well: The band was not interested in providing cover versions in the sense of decals, but offered sophisticated reinterpretations that leave the foundation of the original material unchanged, but otherwise erect new structures and facades. The reason for this is that every musician is given enough space to develop himself. Sometimes the songs become considerably more rocking. By the way, our favourite in this respect is „Gotta Serve Somebody“ in the YouTube recording of the Cropedy-Festival 2011. However, it is not uncommon for the „change of scenery“ to go in the direction of jazz. Songs that on the original recordings are at best uncut rough diamonds, glitter with 24 carats after being edited by The Dylan Project. The main difference is the musical dress in which the songs are presented.
Lars Nilson says about this on http://thegreenmanreview.com:
Do not expect any copies of His Bobness’sown performances, the Dylan Project play the songs their own way, not straying to far from the original but adapting it to their own style/
(We will quote further reviews later when we report on the further career of The Dylan Project).
Steve Gibbons. Photos by Tim Freeman, „The Old Lockup„, see also the acknowledgement at the end of the article.
Homage of the musicians to Dylan also in writing
In the booklet to the CD, the four main actors Steve Gibbons, P.J. Wright, Dave Pegg and Simon Nicol describe the history of the record’s creation and their relationship to Bob Dylan. This gives the album a further personal touch.
Dave Pegg mainly describes the genesis of the album, but in the introduction he states that Steve Gibbons is not only „to blame“ for the fact that he changed from guitar to bass, but also that he became a Dylan fan:
It was really down to Steve Gibbons that I became a Dylan fan … and a bass player.
Simon Nicol blames Bob Dylan for becoming a musician himself:
„I’d blame the simple fact that I became a musician on him. And the revelation of poetic, vivid music which revealed itself to me from those first couple of LPs. It touched me DEEPLY. As perhaps only an adolescent discovering something wonderful which few of his peers appreciated at all and which was the object of categoric dismissal, at the least, and of sometimes scating cynical debasement by older generations,
P.J. Wright also recalls his feelings as a teenager:
From the Dansette at a polite teenager party (parents in the next room) came „The Times They Are (A-Changing)“. It was love at first sight – the voice, the sound, the words and all. Being a fifteen year old apprentice bohemian, I was right with him from that moment on, through all those breathtaking changes as each subsequent album shifted stances and revised the plot.
Steve Gibbons makes the most comprehensive statement, so full of allusions and quotes from Dylan songs („So what? The times have changed … it`s not dark yet“). As there will be another text with a homage to Dylan by Gibbon below, we will only quote one sentence:
One thing`s for sure: whatever transpires from this endeavour, it will be a labour of love by all concerned
Musical confession blows from the flagpole
The sum of all these statements is brought to the point by the only song on this CD that is not written by Bob Dylan but by Steve Gibbons. It’s called „Colours to the mast“. In the song, which musically reminds a little bit of „Simple Twist of Fate“, it says
… when the good ship sails across the howling sea/ and the crew begins to doubt your captainicy/ you can call on me/ … / I have been through all of those songs you wrote …/and everyone says so much to me/I wish I could have said myself/ some people say you are lost living in the past/but I am gonna keep my colour to your mast his impact on his own biography.
Digression: Steve Gibbons as a fan
Steve Gibbons probably writes songs like this because, while he is a major rock musician, he is still a die-hard fan of some of his idols. You notice that when you have the opportunity to talk to him about the Beatles. Then he not only becomes livelier than he already is, but he also tells about biographies that have read about them. And in connection with John Lennon, words like „genius“ are used.
So it’s no wonder that there are several other „confession songs“ in his work:
- For one thing, there is „Mississippi Flash“, from the album „From Birmingham to Memphis“a homage to Elvis Presley,
- „Hey Buddy“ from his 1996 solo CD „Stained Glass“ for Buddy Holly and
- „Chuck in My Car“ from the Steve Gibbons band album „On The Loose“ for Chuck Berry.
The song for Buddy Holly is also very personal and also very reverent, especially considering that it was written by a man in his fifties as a hymn to a young man who died when he was twenty-two. Yet it falls short of „Colours to the mast“. The reason is that although Elvis, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry are gods in the rock Olympus of Steve Gibbon, Zeus there is none other than Bob Dylan!“
The Dylan Project“: Another solo album or first album of a new band?
The album was released under the title „The Dylan Project“, but the artist was exclusively named Steve Gibbons on the front cover.
On the back it said that the record was recorded with (with) Simon Nicol, P.J. Wright and Dave Pegg. All other contributors (Gerry Conway on drums, Ric Sanders, violin, Chris Leslie, fiddle and vocals, and the background singers on „Ring Them Bells“ Ben Ben Bennion, Mick Bullard and Maarin Allcock) are listed as „special guests“.
Album was released as a solo album by Steve Gibbons, not as an album by a band called The Dylan Project.
Such a band did not exist at that time. However, it wasn’t long before the title of the first album became the band name and The Dylan Project played a few concerts a year, usually at the end of the year. The permanent members of this group were (in that order) Steve Gibbons, P.J. Wright, Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol and Gerry Conway.
The US-American keyboardist John „Rabbit“ Bundrick was the „special guest“. With this one they had brought another top-class musician on board. Not only had he already played and/or recorded with Bob Marley and the Wailers, Roger Waters and Free, and had also played a major role in the recordings for The Rocky Horror Picture Show: his most prominent reference was his collaboration with The Who, which he supported on tours, concerts (including Live Aid 1985) and recordings from 1979 onwards.
Album becomes band
From now on, until 2019, when The Dylan Project disbanded, the band’s concerts in the UK were scheduled to take place in November and December (the period when the members of the Fairport Convention, which included most of the band members in their main jobs, took holidays from each other). They did not want to give more than fifteen to twenty concerts a year.
On the one hand, all those involved had enough other activities going on, on the other hand, the project, which was a matter of the musicians‘ hearts, was not to degenerate into a routine.
Here you may learn about a book in which Steve Gibbons played a major role.
Acknowledgemen: We owe the pictures for this contribution to Tim Freeman, who not only took these – and many others ! – beautiful concert photos – which you can also find on his Flickr account – but also runs a lovingly furnished, historic Bed and Breakfast in Derbyshire under the name „The Old Lockup“, which is located in an old police prison – and thus would fit perfectly to some of the shady characters that play a role in Steve Gibbons songs.