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Back on Highway 61

Generally speaking, I prefer Bob Dylan to make his own cover versions, just the way he’s been doing for the best part of 60 years. There are maybe not even a dozen exceptions, mostly the obvious ones: Presley’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, Jimi’s “Watchtower”, Stevie’s “Blowing in the Wind”, the Fairports’ “Si tu dois partir”, Ferry’s “Hard Rain”, Betty LaVette’s “Things Have Changed”. But now there’s a definite addition to the list: Dave Alvin’s version of “Highway 61 Revisited”, a highlight of From an Old Guitar, his new album of rare and unreleased stuff.

To be honest, I haven’t followed the career of the singer/guitarist from Downey, California who started out at the very end of the ’70s with the Blasters and more recently led bands known variously as the Guilty Ones and the Guilty Women. My bad, as the young people say. From an Old Guitar is full of great stuff, drawing on country, blues, R&B and, in Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Perdido Street Blues”, old-time jazz, with other songs from Mickey Newbury, Earl Hooker, Doug Sahm and Marty Robbins.

Dylan’s parable is set to a low-riding shuffle beat, the layered guitars of Alvin and Greg Leisz howling, nudging and screeching from multiple perspectives as the magnificent verses are recited in appropriately biblical tones. Alvin’s voice is one that wears its bruises, scars and calluses lightly, weighting and timing every line perfectly, drawing out the dark humour, simultaneously absurdist and apocalyptic. The video is well assembled and cut, particularly the chase towards the end between a hot rod and a Highway Patrol car on a two-lane blacktop.

My other favourite is a song called “Peace”, credited to Willie Dixon. It bears no resemblance to a song of the same name that gave the title to a 1971 Dixon album, but it carries the hallmarks of the composer of “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “The Seventh Son”. The buried hook — the thing that makes we want to listen to it again, straight away — is a funky little chorded figure from Joe Terry’s electric piano: peeping through two or three times, it seems to want to take the song in a different direction before thinking better of it and withdrawing.

I can happily listen to this album from start to finish, and then over again. Even better, I imagine, would be to wander into some bar or other — Dingwalls, perhaps, or the old Tramps on 15th Street in NYC — and drink a beer or two while listening to Alvin and his band working their way through the whole thing. One day, maybe. But whatever, that “Highway 61” is going to stick around.

* Dave Alvin’s From an Old Guitar is out now on the Yep Roc label.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. mw.archer@btopenworld.com #

    There’s a Dave Alvin album for around 25 years ago he made with the Arkestra!! Sadly I no longer own a copy…… wonder if you ever heard it?

    Martin

    December 8, 2020
    • Are you not thinking of Dave’s brother Phil? His Unsung Storys album featured Sun Ra.

      December 8, 2020
  2. Dr_Jim #

    I agree wholeheartedly with your appraisal of Davis Alvin’s version of this great song. I first heard it on a CD given away on the cover of Uncut magazine ‘Highway 61 Revisited Revisited’ in 2005. The performance of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ by the Handsome Family on the same album also makes one think about the song in a new way too.
    ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ seems to have been an important composition for a number of performers. Johnny Winter, who clearly heard resonances between the song and his own life, made multiple versions and there is a great attempt by the post-Feelgood Wilko Johnson Solid Senders. If songs live by being performed then this song is indeed full of life!

    December 8, 2020
  3. Phil Brown #

    The wonderful Dave Alvin version of Highway 61 revisited appeared on a freebie CD from UNCUT in 2005 that was titled Highway 61 Revisited Revisited – each track was a cover version from the original album , but nothing beat Dave Alvin’s. The delivery of that opening verse is just wonderful.

    December 8, 2020
  4. Thumbs up from me. Dave Alvin is a class act on record and live. I first heard this version of Highway 61 in 2005 on an Uncut magazine giveaway CD of Dylan covers. Several other good covers on there, IMHO (nicely ‘curated’ I guess we’d say these days).

    December 8, 2020
  5. Richard – Covers? Dion’s versions of Tomorrow Is A Long Time and Baby You’ve Been On My Mind wipe the floor with Zimmy’s.

    December 8, 2020
  6. Patrick Humphries #

    See my thoughts on Highway61 on Facebook which I play as we speak. Well I ride on the mail train baby, can’t buy a thrill…

    >

    December 8, 2020
  7. Paul Crowe #

    Dave Alvin’s album included on my family KK wishlist one hour before reading this. Symmetry and thank you, Richard!

    December 8, 2020
  8. mick gold #

    What a brilliant H61R and stylish satanic video. Some Dylan covers I love: Them, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”; Fairport Convention, “Percy’s Song”; John Doe, “Pressing On” (from I’m Not There movie) Antony & the Johnsons, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”; Joan Baez, “Love Is Just a Four Letter Word”.

    December 8, 2020
  9. Sedat Nemli #

    I’m looking forward to discovering Dave Alvin, but as Dylan covers go The Grease Band did a killer version of “New Morning” on their second album “Amazing Grease” (1975). What a great singer Alan Spenner was!

    December 8, 2020
  10. John Wood #

    Fairport’s I’ll Keep it with Mine is an outstanding Dylan cover. Sandy Denny. On top form

    December 9, 2020
  11. Phil Brown #

    Some of my favourite Dylan covers are by the late, great Jimmy Lafave. His Trail albums of unissued recordings includes plenty of wonderful live versions both plugged in and acoustic – e.g. I threw it all away, positively 4th street

    December 9, 2020
    • Completely agree. How could I have forgotten his “Girl from the Red River Shore”? Without doing anything overtly spectacular, LaFave had a way of getting to the heart of Dylan’s songs.

      December 9, 2020
  12. markswill #

    Actually Richard, Dave Alvin’s ‘Highway 61’ was previously released on a giveaway CD of Dylan covers offered by either Q or possibly Mojo about 15 years ago. There’s some other good things on there including ‘Rolling Stone’ by the United States of America – yes, really!

    December 9, 2020
  13. Sedat Nemli #

    Ben Sidran’s 2009 album “Dylan Different” is certainly worth a listen, too.

    December 9, 2020
  14. GuitarSlinger #

    For those sadly still in the dark … David Alvin is one of the great unsung heroes of contemporary Americana . Nuff said

    December 9, 2020
    • markswill #

      Very true about Alvin, and indeed his original band, the Blasters. When I worked for Slash Record in LA I was involved in the production and release of their first album and got to know the Alvin brothers, Phil and Dave, well, although they did like to fight between themselves a lot which could make things a bit tricky! Dave was a good drinking buddy though – Jack with a beer back being his (and then my) favourite tipple.

      December 9, 2020
      • Guitarslinger #

        Great background story … kudos good sir . And yeah … the brothers certainly spent more than their fair share at each others throats …. but then again .. look at all the great music those conflicts produced

        In addendum . We should add Danny Barnes to that list for all the Brits missing out on his music as well .

        Funny thing … I’m not a fan of either Danny or Alvin … but do have the ultimate respect and appreciation for their work …hmmm ..

        December 11, 2020
  15. Phil Shaw #

    More great Dylan covers if I may — Wicked Messenger by the Faces, My Back Pages by The Byrds, Tears of Rage by Gene Clark (Dylan and Richard Manuel) and I Shall Be Released by The Band.

    December 9, 2020
  16. I’d put Van Morrison’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue near the very top of Dylan covers.

    December 9, 2020
  17. GuitarSlinger #

    OK … so here’s the real news when it comes to the Cosmic Chameleon ( Bob Dylan )

    He just sold all the rights to his songs ( including the latest album’s worth ) … for

    Sigh …. $300 million . With many others following suit .

    I’ll let Richard give all the details ( assuming he’s got an article in the hopper ) before expressing my opinion on the matter

    December 11, 2020
  18. Jonh #

    One of the really interesting things about the late ’70s LA music scene was on the one hand you had the noise-makers like Fear and The Circle Jerks and on the other the roots oriented rock ‘n’ roll of The Plugz (one of the best), X, and The Blasters. Weirdly, the audience for both was pretty much the same. I have many good memories of watching Dave and Phil working the Whisky stage in a blaze of guitars and (yes) hearing a Dylan cover or two.

    December 11, 2020
    • Guitarslinger #

      That was the reality of LA’s music scene from practically its beginnings [ every kind of music available ranging from the experimental to pop and all places in between ] right up until it’s becoming the gentrified over homogenized cesspool of dreck it is now . Which took complete hold … oh … around the late 1990’s early 2000’s

      Sigh … what the digital disrupter revolution has wrought upon us all … mindless rot .. in a nutshell

      December 11, 2020
  19. Paul Tickell #

    Thanks for the prompt, Richard – have been really enjoying the Alvin album. On a couple of tracks I am reminded a bit of Tony Joe South… Good that Nedat Semli gives The Grease Band their due… Re favourite Dylan cover: it changes for me more or less on an annual basis. This year it has been The Band’s ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, released in 1971 a little while before Dylan’s own recording. This week my loyalties have gone over to Nina Simone’s ‘I Shall Be Released’, used to great effect in the Netflix series The Good Lord Bird, a dramatisation of the rebellious exploits of pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown told through the eyes of a cross-dressing African-American boy.

    December 12, 2020
  20. Paul Tickell #

    Ooops! I meant of course Tony Joe White – not South! though I like Joe South too…

    December 12, 2020
  21. DAVID THOMAS #

    You can’t leave out Liverpools John O Connell from this. His repertoire of Dylan Covers is just brilliant in concert. Complete run through of Blood on the tracks is just top draw. Also, Stateside, Mary Lees Corvette and Irelands legendery Christy Moore do great covers too.

    December 12, 2020

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