MORE than 20 years ago, I caught Bob Dylan in concert and was transfixed by a song that had me on O'Connell Bridge the next day checking out the man with the bootleg cassettes.
Tomorrow Night ("will you say the lovely things you said tonight") sounded like a sophisticated back-room jazz blues composition. It wasn't original. The song dated from 1939 and had been a hit for Lonnie Johnson. The version I had on a scratchy 45 was by Lavern Baker. Accompanied by just guitar and harmonica, Dylan released the song on Good As I Been To You, the album that prefaced his astonishing re-birth as a creative powerhouse.
Dylan would later dazzle listeners with his Theme Time Radio Hour shows, displaying a love of a wide-ranging repertoire that was inspiring and educational.
That he was revisiting Frank Sinatra's repertoire might have seemed perverse. In the 1950s, Sinatra had infamously raged against the emergence of rock'n'roll.
But who'd have known that Frank got his kicks to Bob's Restless Farewell, a song inspired by the Clancy Brothers' version of The Parting Glass. He requested Dylan to sing it at his 80th birthday celebrations. In front of Ol' Blue Eyes and a crowd that included Little Richard and Ray Charles, Dylan sang, "So I'll bid farewell in the night and be gone…I'll bid farewell and not give a damn." Frank was visibly moved.
There were other signposts to this collection, notably on Modern Times and even Bob's Christmas In The Heart album. As you might expect, Dylan does things his way. The key to the exercise lies in his assertion, "I don't see myself as covering these songs…what me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them."
With Donny Herron's pedal steel guitar providing most of the atmospherics, the arrangements are unplugged, with addition on some tunes of muted mournful brass. Dylan painstakingly explores the narrative drama of each song with the attention of a forensic archaeologist. Ever one for nuance, Dylan excels himself on these tunes.
The results are staggeringly brilliant. I'm A Fool To Want You, which was co-written by Sinatra, has the ache of Dylan's sublime Lovesick from Time Out Of Mind.
In Dylan's hands, the most recent Sinatra recording, Stay With Me, from 1963, becomes a timeless spiritual, as solid as a work by William Blake.
The 1946 French song Les Feuilles Mortes, re-written in English as Autumn Leaves, has been recorded by notables such as Eric Clapton, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mark Lanegan. Dylan brings a world weariness to it and to the familiar Some Enchanted Evening.
Frank would approve.