Almost 23 months after releasing Blonde On The Tracks, her excellent contribution to the already rich corpus of Bob Dylan interpretations, Emma Swift came to Riverton, N.J., with Robyn Hitchcock in tow, to play her first U.S. show in support of the album to a backyard filled with reverent listeners.
Leaving the guitar playing to Hitchcock while she focused on delivering Dylan’s wordy masterpieces, Swift skipped only the 12-minute “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” and added a few that didn’t make her record, including one that appeared on Hitchcock’s own 2002 collection of Dylan covers, Robyn Sings (“Visions Of Johanna”) and a restrained duet of “Just Like A Woman.”
She honored the poetry, the poet and all the brilliant women who put their own spin on his work before she was even born. Performing “Mama, You Been On My Mind” for the first time, Swift singled out covers by Linda Ronstadt and Joan Baez, among others, that found favor much earlier than Dylan’s officially released version in 1991.
Reflecting on the consistently inspired set, it’s futile to choose just one or two songs as high points, lest that imply any other moments fell short. But it’s worth mentioning how Swift’s reading of “I Contain Multitudes,” both on record and in person, works in tandem with Dylan’s late-career gem to demonstrate his continued relevance, and how prickly and alive “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” feels in Swift’s hands nearly 60 years after Dylan first recorded it.
Though they achieved the near perfection of acolytes who have each scathing phrase and every dark chord tattooed on their hearts, Swift and Hitchcock couldn’t suppress their joy to be playing these songs, playing together and playing for appreciative people (and a pair of adorable sheepdogs) on a clear evening. And that same joy was evident in the pre-show and after-show conversations of the many friends who hadn’t seen one another in far too long and the livestream regulars and social media denizens meeting in the flesh for the first time.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich