The Showcase: Smashing Dobros and Butterscotch Telecasters: Unpacking “Oh Mercy” for live performance

by Andrew Ferguson

Why do I love “Oh Mercy” so much? So many reasons, but above all it was the production values Daniel Lanois brought to the recordings. For the first time in years, Dylan had a producer who understood what he was trying to achieve, even if the two argued, sometimes violently. Our problem was recreating the entire album live.

After years of deliberately not covering Dylan and doing my own material, I had this mad dream of covering a complete album with a band of buddies and fellow travellers. The album in the dream? “Oh Mercy,” the one so meticulously chronicled in, amongst other places, Dylan’s “Chronicles, Volume One.” and Lanois’ memoir…

New Orleans … mostly at night … crickets … cemeteries with names like Lafayette Number One … giant, gaunt cats going toe to toe with you on sidewalk walls. The fever in the streets such that a sober Canadian could smash a dobro in a fit of anger.

Kind of difficult to reproduce in an Edinburgh art school performance space in July – even on a (hopefully) hot July night with Greyfriars churchyard a bone’s throw away.

Let’s start with the guitars. Lanois, in his account, has Dylan playing the rhythm parts on a butterscotch (‘52) Telecaster. My Harley Benton black-and-white is decidedly non-vintage, but pushed through a Fender amp with the reverb on 11, it provides that shimmering curtain of sound you’ll recognise even if you have no idea what I’m talking about when I talk about guitars.

That’s where the similarity ends, really, at least instrument-wise. We decided early on that we had no desire to turn into a Dylan tribute act, wigs and all. Nothing wrong with them, of course, but we wanted to see if these songs would take the treatment we gave them: which, of course, they did.

So the line up’s two guitars, bass, drums, keys and four of us taking turns at the vocals. We haven’t messed with the arrangements in the sense of changing the key instrument, though – so “Ring Them Bells” and “Disease of Conceit” are very much led by the piano; “Political World” comes straight out of the traps with the guitars.

Everything, of course, in the service of the song. “What Was It You Wanted?” sung by our keyboard player, James, is a particular favourite so far in rehearsal: that three-chord sequence that hovers briefly at the start before the vocals is never repeated, and yet sets the mood for what we’ve constructed as a slow-build, doom-filled version.

Others take inspiration from elsewhere. Emma, for example, who takes lead vocals on “Man in the Long Black Coat,” was inspired by the Joan Osborne cover of it, so we’ve run with the spirit of that.

In general, the songs are pretty conventional, structure and chord progression-wise. The devil is in the detail – where to stick with the original in terms of intros and outros, where not to – where a guitar fill works, and where the keyboard should come to the fore. We’ve had lots of fun experimenting with different treatments.

The trickiest thing? The words. There’s a reason we’ve shared the vocal duties around. Partly it’s just the sheer volume, and sometimes the phrasing can get tricky – try fitting “Guess it’s too late to say the things to you that you needed to hear me say,” (from “Shooting Star”) into the space the music allows you – but, also, it’s the number of list songs on the album.

Instead of a direct line narrative, Dylan builds a picture with lists of things: “Everything Is Broken” is the most obvious example, but even something like “Disease of Conceit” has two lines of ways people are affected by conceit, followed by two ways conceit can affect you (ultimately, of course, fatally). It’s not obvious at first which halves of verses fit together.

Dylan teasingly writes about this in “Chronicles, Volume One,” giving us some frankly terrible lines that dropped out at the editing stage. The ones he left in, of course, are superb, but with four rehearsals to go, while we’re not quite note-perfect, the thing we’re most needing to work on is being word perfect.

After all, no self-respecting Dylan fan would want to mangle the great man’s lyrics!

However, we aren’t stopping at performing the songs: we have also recruited a writer, Kevin Crowe. Taking his inspiration in part from “Chronicles Volume One,” he has written ten pieces of flash fiction, to read as part of the concert. Kevin has described this as one of the most exciting projects he has been involved in for a long time.

You can hear the result through this link: “Shooting Star,” performed by the band

Readers’ versions of Dylan’s songs


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