How Cat Power Re-created Bob Dylan's Most Controversial Concert

The singer and prolific cover artist tackles her biggest project yet: Dylan’s infamous 1966 Royal Albert Hall show.

by Billy Heller

Chan Marshall’s phone was buzzing. A text said: “Urgent! Pick up your phone!”

It was September 2022, and the singer-songwriter known onstage and on record as Cat Power was at her home in Miami Beach.

“I’ve lived there for 22 years,” she tells NYLON from the couch of the loft-like ground floor of her longtime friend’s home in the brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood Cobble Hill. Fresh off her previous night’s performance on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, Marshall, 51, is talking about Cat Power Sings Dylan: The Royal Albert Hall Concert, her new live album. It’s an exact, song-for-song re-creation of Bob Dylan’s infamous 1966 Royal Albert Hall show (which was actually recorded at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall but the tape was mislabeled).

“This girl, Jenny, who lives here, is my best friend since high school,” says Marshall before talking about moving to New York City in 1992 “to get the hell out of the South.” (She’s still got what she calls a “squat” apartment in the East Village). She ended up in Miami because Jenny had moved there to go to college. She then tells me how five songs from her 2022 Covers album played on BBC’s Radio 6 last year. “I felt super grateful and psyched that they were on the radio,” she says. She had been on tour in the U.K. for that album.

In conversation, Marshall, who today is wearing black slacks and a red-and-black buffalo plaid wool jacket adorned with a button promoting gun control, digresses, goes on tangents, zigs, zags, and then says “sorry” and returns to what she was talking about before. She gets back to that urgent text.

Cat Power’s latest album is an exact, song-for-song re-creation of Bob Dylan’s infamous 1966 Royal Albert Hall show.Inez & Vinoodh

It was from her manager, Andy Slater. She picked up the phone call. “Hey, you got a show, the last one of the ‘Covers’ tour, Nov. 5, Royal Albert Hall,” he said. Did she want to do it? “F*ck yeah!”

But there was one condition. She immediately thought of Dylan’s controversial concert. After an acoustic first set, Dylan and his band (the Hawks, who became the Band) raised the volume, the tempo, and the attitude, and went electric. Some in the crowd booed, some walked out. One guy yelled “Judas!” To which Dylan instructed his band, “Play f*cking loud.” Marshall was first exposed to that concert when she was 19 and saw D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, which featured footage of that now-legendary show, on a newly released VHS tape.

She told Slater that she wanted to recreate Dylan’s concert at the prestigious London venue. “Bob was always a superhero to me as a kid,” Marshall says. “I loved his writing, his sense of humor. I loved his beauty, his sense of the world. As a kid, I feel like he taught me critical thinking because of his songwriting.”

“I only wanted to present the album in a sort of protected manner. I wanted to sort of archive it while Bob’s still on Earth.”

Marshall had an itinerant, sometimes chaotic childhood beginning with her birth. “I was in an incubator. I was very sick,” she says. “I was left at the hospital.” Her grandmother eventually took her home and raised her until she was five, when she met her mother and started living with her. Marshall moved to different homes in the Atlanta area, then North Carolina, Memphis, and more.

“I went to 13 schools in 13 years. Sometimes it was three schools in one year,” she says. “It was very difficult living with different family members, different people.”

Her music education started with her Bible-reading grandmother, who passed away right before the pandemic. “She’d be cooking, and every time she’d be cooking, I had to put on a record: ‘Oh, put on Ray Charles for me, honey,’” says Marshall, mimicking her grandma, Southern accent and all. “‘Oh, put on Hank Williams for me, honey. Put on, oh, what’s that Elvis song?’” There was Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline, and many other greats.

“I just grew up on all these songs that others sang,” she adds. “Gershwin, Cole Porter, you name it. And everybody sings when they’re cooking.”

Eventually, that singing in the kitchen morphed into her now decades-long musical career, of which singing renditions of other artists’ songs became a huge part. Marshall’s own musical output now includes four full albums of covers: 2000’s The Covers Record; 2008’s Jukebox; 2022’s Covers, and now, Cat Power Sings Dylan.

Cat Power performing on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show.NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

She says she didn’t want to rehearse for the Royal Albert Hall show. “I felt the songs needed to come direct from the ‘source.’” And since her son, Boaz, now eight, was born, Marshall says she’s had a tough time remembering lyrics. “I've used a personal lyric book since then because I discovered ‘Mommy Brain’ is a real thing.”

As a woman performing Dylan’s songs, Marshall could have changed some lyrics to sing from a female point of view, but you won’t find his “Just Like a Woman,” turned into “Just Like a Man,” for example. “I only wanted to present the album in a sort of protected manner,” she says, as close as possible to the original. “I wanted to sort of archive it while Bob’s still on Earth.”

Still, when she’s alone, she does sometimes switch the lyrics “She’s got everything she needs/ She’s an artist she don't look back” to “I’ve got everything I need…” when she sings album opener “She Belongs to Me.” “I think it’s really nice for any woman to do that because it’s so special and so gifting to sing it to yourself,” Marshall says.

Does she consider the Dylan album the pinnacle to her craft of covers? Is there anything more left for her to cover?

“Of course," she says. “He is the Mount Everest of songwriting, but there’s always things to be done musically […] that can help people when they’re losing their marbles. It’s like the great healer. Music has saved my life a trillion times when struggling with things I didn’t have the worldly experience to understand. And the struggle with drugs and alcohol, I think, happens to most people who haven’t figured out how to love themselves.”

“I see and feel the impact these songs have on everybody else.”

Marshall mentions that she is 204 days sober. She offers me a shot of coffee, nothing stronger, from a thermos, apologizing that it’s not hot. “It’s from Jimmy Fallon [from the previous night]. Yeah, I was like, Dude, I’m not letting this f*cking coffee go to waste.”

Over the years, Marshall estimates she’s seen Dylan in concert 30 times or more. She’s even dreamed about him, recalling, “We were laughing in a car at some joke one of us told. I don’t know who was driving but it was sunny and there was music on the radio, soft. We were both the same age and we were young. And we were happy.”

And she managed to meet him a couple of times. The first time was in 2007 in Paris. She was there posing for the covers of two fashion magazines, Jalouse and L’Official. He was in town playing a show. Marshall, who says she had been begging to go on tour with Dylan since she was 22 and even wrote a song for him, “Song To Bobby,” got to meet him backstage.

“He said,” and here, she does her Dylan impersonation, recalling the moment as if it happened yesterday, “‘So, we finally meet. I got all your calls.’” Last year, they met again in Glasgow, Scotland, when they both were touring the U.K. “He was taller than I expected. And broader-shouldered and girth-y, manly, masculine.”

Just like Dylan’s original Royal Albert Hall recording, there is a “Judas” moment for Marshall. She figured “some dude” would call it out during her performance as a joke, but she had a better idea. “I texted Courtney [Love] the morning of the show and asked her if she wanted to be the one who called out ‘Judas,’ because she’s been to hell and back.” Love, who’s sober now, is living in London and working on her huge autobiography.

When Love nixed that, Marshall asked, “What about Jesus?”

“Genius,” Love answered. “I’m there.”

When Love didn’t show and some dude — naturally — did the “Judas” thing, Marshall had her response ready: “Jesus,” thanks to her chat with Love.

Just like Dylan’s original Royal Albert Hall recording, there is a “Judas” moment for Marshall.

Just before Marshall left for the U.K. and the show, Chan emailed Dylan’s manager to tell him they were going to record it (although the reality of an album release was still unsure). She asked him, “Could you just tell Bob I’m not doing this for validation. I’m not doing this to be cool. I’m doing this out of respect and honor for Bob’s material.”

When she landed in Glasgow, she got a response from the rep saying he would pass the message along. Reached over email, Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, clarifies that Dylan never really comments on other people doing his songs. “There’s so many covers. I’m unaware if he’s heard the record or not.”

Marshall breathes new life into the 15 Dylan songs she performed at Royal Albert Hall with her reverent interpretations. Her clear voice, dipping lower at times than Dylan’s, gives listeners a chance to really hear the lyrics and think about them. And gives a new generation a chance to discover what Marshall sees in Dylan and his songs.

Marshall is pleased, proud of how the album came out: “I see and feel the impact these songs have on everybody else.” But she did have one regret from the show. As a single mother who often brings her son on tour, she couldn’t bring Boaz this time because of school. “It’s OK, Mom,” he told her. “I understand. I know you gotta work.”

Then he had a question that kind of blew her away: “Are Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop friends?”

“He knows I’m cool and he knows I’m a nerd at the same time,” Marshall explains. “But he wanted to know if Bob Dylan was really as cool as I think he is, asking if he’s cool enough to be friends with Iggy Pop.”

Her answer: “There can’t be Iggy without Bob, sweetie.”

Cat Power’s ‘Cat Power Sings Dylan: The Royal Albert Hall Concert’ is out now.