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Translating Bob

October 13, 2009

paula.jpegOne of the least satisfying musical experiences I think I've ever had was catching Bob Dylan at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley in 2002. This is really saying something as the combination of Great Bob and the Greek ought to have been a recipe for perfection. But the singer sadly failed to deliver. He played the piano badly, slurred and bleated his words more than I've ever heard him do previously and generally made every song sound unintelligible. My friend and I spent the entire gig playing a game of "guess which famous Bob Dylan song the singer is singing right now?" More often than not, we couldn't make out the titles of his most beloved hits until the songs were halfway through.

So it was rather a relief to attend the great jazz singer Paula West's latest San Francisco Performances concert at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco over the weekend and hear Dylan's lyrics and melodies come through loud and clear. West often includes a couple of Dylan songs in her sets. Her interpretations feel startlingly fresh even though she sticks quite strongly to Dylan's way of doing things -- you won't catch her attempting any over the top jazzy embellishments.

The main transformation that occurs when you hear the warm-granite-voiced West do Dylan is in the lyrics: You can actually understand every word that Dylan wrote, which is more than can be said of the auteur's own performances of his songs. As West stood up on stage singing "LIke A Rolling Stone" alongside the rapturous George Mesterhazy Quartet, the song span around me in a way that was completely unlike any interpretation I'd heard before. For the first time ever, I heard fallen gods and descending night in Dylan's music:

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you'd better lift your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

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