Napoleon In Rags rocked J’s Tavern

Napoleon In Rags is a Bob Dylan inspired cover band that offers plenty of roots rock music from Dylan’s heyday. Last night’s show at J’s Tavern in Milford, New Hampshire found N.I.R. putting on one hell of a performance. Lead singer Bobby Livingston is one of those full throated belters who prefers self-restraint, keeping the tension just barely contained and below the surface, tapping into his reservoir of energy to make tremendous spikes and dips in dynamics, timbre, and tone.
N.I.R. pepper their set lists with plenty of Dylan material, and Livingston knows how to channel Dylan’s persona without falling into impersonation.  “Tangled Up In Blue” found Livingston gracefully riding the amicable rambling motion of the song structure while injecting life into it at the microphone. Livingston is also an able harmonica player, blowing that chirpy, familiar line while a lead guitar line skipped merrily along above a nuanced rhythm section.
“Blind Willie McTell” gave lead guitarist Scot Gibbs a chance to showcase his artistry, making his guitar practically sing, its melodic phrase moving and soothing. Livingston brought a plaintive approach to his vocalization that injected personality into their fun rambunctious rendition. The band drove it hard, as if they were fearlessly making their way through a treacherous storm.
Co-lead vocalist Kim Riley had true power in her rich voice. Singing Dylan’s “Isis” from the 1975 album Desire with missionary zeal, Riley also had one hell of an assertive strum on her acoustic guitar. She built a comforting layer of notes just below Gibbs electric overcast, and it was the structure that made this one come alive.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” played up-tempo, was marked by graceful vocal harmony between Livingston and Riley.  “From A Buick 6” gave Gibbs another opportunity to play a hearty phrase. “Quinn, The Eskimo” was a fun, sing-a-long vibe, and “Like A Rolling Stone” finished the night with the crowd up and dancing to this deep, meaning of life song. It also featured a pleasant lead guitar line whistling through layers of groove and vocals.
Napoleon In Rags is not, however, a Bob Dylan tribute as much as a Bob Dylan inspired band. N.I.R. also play many roots rock songs by artists from the songwriter’s golden era, with the same crack precision and muscular delivery.
The band opened the show with Otis Blackwell’s song “Daddy Rollin’ Stone,” a rowdy, rocking number that let Livingston get belty and raw. The groove they had going on was complex and irresistible. Bass player John Bruner and drummer Mike DuPont were perfectly suited to these twisty, winding grooves, following them into their meaningful rhythms, infectious, over the top. Livingston has the wiry front man personality to deliver “Daddy.” His throaty style grabbed the ear and didn’t let go.
Riley sang The Rolling Stones classic “Tumbling Dice” with detailed richness in her much blessed timbre. Gibbs’ honky tonk guitar line gave it flavor and verve, keeping it country and rock and roll at the same time. Segue into The Rolling Stones version of Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” and Gibbs got to showcase another wiry phrase.
Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” let Livingston make the most of his gritty vocal style and it gave Gibbs a chance to have fun playing those vintage 1950s guitar riffs. Shifting gears, N.I.R. drove into the mid-1990s with The Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache.” Bassist Bruner sang that one with a cowboy drawl. Gibbs’ traveling guitar phrase rode the mellow groove underneath him.
Riley’s take on Concrete Blonde’s  “Joey” was infused with feeling, spunk, giving lift each time she sustained one of her beautiful vocal notes. Another highlight was Livingston’s original “Hills Of Beverly.” Supposed to be released this year, a CD will contain this tight ensemble piece with its springy rhythmic underpinning and hooky chorus. It was nice to see J’s Tavern open-minded crowd dancing enthusiastically to an original.
Miss Riley got into a rambunctious acoustic guitar workout on Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.” This girl can handle herself on the rocking numbers, her voice riding the beautiful range of notes during the choruses.
Another original, “You Came Alive,” will certainly be big news when that CD is finally released. There was a lot of life in last night’s performance, marked by Livingston and Riley’s belty exchanges. Gibbs played a feisty, unwieldy guitar line cut a wide path around the palpable groove of the rhythm section.
Riley unfurled the ballady acoustic guitar piece “Fisherman‘s Blues” by The Waterboys with mighty strums that dominated its musical direction while rocking it with her deeply rich timbre and rising coos. Her raspier timbre was also a treat during The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” her voice fitting the song like a glove.
N.I.R. had some fun with The Doors “Soul Kitchen.” Down tempo at first, the guitars subbed well for the absent keyboard player. N.I.R. finessed the changes in dynamics. Segue into “When The Music’s Over” and Gibbs played an incisive lead line that cleverly sharpened what Robby Krieger was doing 46 years ago when The Doors recorded their Strange Days album.
Riley continued the manic pace, singing Lucinda Williams’ “Little Honey” with wild abandon. Freed from her acoustic guitar, she danced like a Tasmanian devil while the band slammed it home with pulse pounding action.
Bass player John Bruner assumed lead vocal duty on Tom Petty’s “Last Dance With Mary Jane.” He sang it with that chirpy, folksy vocal that cleverly belies its mournful storyline. Livingston’s dollops of bluesy, mournful harmonica lines were an added bonus. Gibbs, too, gave it ignition with his on fire interpretation of the original phrase.
Napoleon In Rags succeeds by paying attention to detail and by powering their songs with drive and hefty momentum. Even without their keyboardist Steve Baker, who couldn’t make it to last night’s gig, the band brought spark to every number. That they can get people dancing to originals, obscure tunes, and fresh arrangements speaks to the chemistry they develop with their audience. It was impressive to see how many people kept coming into the small tavern to hear them.