The last time Robbie Fulks tackled a whole record it was Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. This time he took on an even less popular release, 1978’s Street Legal. I missed the first one but there was no way I was going to miss this. I’m certainly a Dylan fan, but other than opening track “Changing of the Guard,” I couldn’t even remember what was on Street Legal. So a few weeks before the show I got it out and listened to it, and remembered that I really like this record. “Senor,” “Baby Stop Crying,” “True Love Tends to Forget,” all really great songs. Like most of Dylan’s late 70’s/early 80’s work, it’s overproduced, and there are ridiculous backing singers and saxophones. But seeing as that was the Dylan I first knew- my first Dylan record was 1982’s Infidels thanks to the video for “Jokerman,” and I’ll fight anyone who says a bad thing about it- I have a special fondness for that time period. In his post about the show, he promised half re-worked versions and half more faithful. As he also noted, never mind the fact that nine tracks doesn’t not divide in half. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do.
Opening track “Changing of the Guard” was definitely one of the re-worked ones. He dialed the gloss way back, starting the song with just an acoustic guitar, adding the rest of the band in gradually. Highlights were a violin and dual keyboards, played by jack-of-all trades Casey McDonough and “new guy” Scott Stevenson who I remembered from the year-end show. Stevenson remained on piano while McDonough moved to bass, “never to be seen again” joked one of the backing singers as took a spot behind them. This was the biggest band I’d seen Robbie with, especially since these Monday shows are often just him and a guest. While there wasn’t a saxophone tonight, I was glad to see that he kept the backing vocalists. One was the wife of Liam Davis (of the Not Ready for Naptime Players) who is also starring in Seussical, the second was a member of the Steppenwolf Theater who I swore Robbie introduced as Norah Jones, but on second though may have been Laura. The third was also the violin player who Robbie says he had met just three hours earlier. She was also terrific on trumpet for a mellow and moving version of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Robbie played 12 string electric mando-guitar. It’s perhaps my favorite song on Street Legal and one of the only ones from this record that Dylan still does live. Of course, like Fulks’, Dylan’s live version sounds completely different from the one on the record.
All of the songs were great but it was the final track that really impressed. “Where Are You Tonight (A Journey through Dark Heat)” isn’t a song I even remember from the record, despite the fact that’s it’s six and a half minutes long, but I’ll remember it now. It became truly epic in their hands. In all the years that I have been watching Gerald Dowd drum I don’t think I have ever seen him play harder or with more intensity, it was truly thrilling to watch. Wow.
When Robbie had picked up the keyboard they were borrowing from Dave Max Crawford he asked what they were doing that night. When Robbie told him it was Dylan’s “Street Legal,” Crawford responded, “trying to save it from its terrible reputation huh?” I believe they just might have done it.