Every other year, some of the world's most distinctive guitar players gather in New York City to celebrate the New York Guitar Festival with a series of intimate concerts and one-of-a-kind collaborations. To open the 2008 New York Guitar Festival, more than 20 artists assembled at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden to honor the music of Bob Dylan by recreating his famed 1966 "Royal Albert Hall" concert. (The original Dylan show actually took place May 16, 1966, in Manchester, England, not at the Royal Albert Hall in London but has become known as such through many old mislabeled vinyl bootlegs.) From Belle and Sebastian frontman Stevie Jackson to vocal powerhouse Toshi Reagon, the concert featured an eclectic lineup of some of today's most talented guitarists and vocal standouts. Performing the show in sequence as Dylan did more than 40 years ago, the musicians treated the at-capacity crowd to an unforgettable interpretation of one of music's most known and storied concerts.
To open the show, host John Schaefer (of WNYC radio) introduced Oakley Hall - with full band - to electrify the usually acoustic "She Belongs To Me". Dylan's inward and outward battle with his shift from acoustic to electric guitar playing was a recurring theme in Saturday's night's concert and Oakley Hall set the tone. In contrast, "Royal Albert Hall" Project line-up latecomer Natalia Zukerman nailed "Fourth Time Around" with her outstanding acoustic guitar work. Natalia's soft yet powerful performance led seamlessly into Stevie Jackson's "Visions of Johanna" solo. With an affected Dylanesque vocal delivery, albeit with a Glaswegian accent, Jackson captivated the audience, who listened attentively still wondering the song's true meaning.
Warmed up and ready for more, the crowd was delighted to see Jason Isbell, co-founder and formerly of Drive-By Truckers, take the stage for his rendition of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", which he sang as though he'd been performing the song for years. The next tune, "Desolation Row", was performed by Freeman, a young Welsh songwriter/guitarist and recent signee to Clive Davis's RCA Music Group. In introducing Freeman, John Schaefer touted him as possibly the next Jeff Buckley, creating nearly impossibly high expectations for everyone. However, his impassioned vocal performance, accompanied by Brandon Ross's fine guitar work, astounded the audience and left little doubt about his promising future.
A fan favorite, "Mr. Tambourine Man", came next on the bill. Kelly Joe Phelps' inspired vocal performance and his Mississippi John Hurt-like fingerpicking induced an excited hush over the packed house. Additional concert highlights include Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal's version of "Tell Me Momma" and Chocolate Genius, Inc.'s full-band take on "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"; Marc Ribot's virtuoso guitar work nicely complemented Genius' snarky, growling vocal. Not to be outdone, Lenny Kaye, Mr. Nice Guy (who also doubles as Patti Smith's guitarist) and Katrina Kiedis (late of Sufjan Stevens's band) gave sweet treatment to "One Too Many Mornings," alternating vocal duties during the verses and bringing it on home during the hook.
For the last song, Toshi Reagon and band – with Marc Ribot again supplying Telecaster genius – tore through "Like A Rolling Stone" with such force that not an eye could be turned. Reagon's powerful voice filled the cavernous Winter Garden and had the audience on its feet in overwhelming approval.
Much to the audience's delight, all of the night's artists rejoined on stage for a very special encore performance of "Knockin on Heaven's Door". With some of guitar's most talented players performing the music of one of the world's most gifted songwriters, The "Royal Albert Hall" Project was the perfect beginning to the exciting weeks of music still to come in the New York Guitar Festival.
Complete "Royal Albert Hall" Project setlist and artists below.
1. "She Belongs to Me" Oakley Hall
2. "Fourth Time Around" Natalia Zukerman
3. "Visions of Johanna" Stevie Jackson (Belle & Sebastian)
4. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" Jason Isbell (formerly of Drive By Truckers) with Browan Lollar
5. "Desolation Row" Freeman & Brandon Ross
6. "Just Like A Woman" The Last Town Chorus
7. "Mr. Tambourine Man" Kelly Joe Phelps
8. "Tell Me, Momma" Jim Lauderdale with John Leventhal
9. "I Don't Believe You" Laura Cantrell with special guest Stevie Jackson
10. "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" Harry Manx & Kevin Breit
11. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" Jesse Harris
12. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" Chocolate Genius Inc. with Marc Ribot
13. "One Too Many Mornings" Lenny Kaye & Katrina Kiedis
14. "Ballad of a Thin Man" Richard Julian & Jim Campilongo
15. "Like a Rolling Stone" Toshi Reagon with special guest Marc Ribot
16. E: "Knockin on Heaven's Door" All Artists