CD reviews: In search of Bob Dylan
September 22, 2005
The once elusive Bob Dylan is everywhere these days, on pages, on the small screen, on CD. Last year came the memoir “Chronicles” and an appearance on “60 Minutes”; now comes “No Direction Home,” Martin Scorsese’s three-plus hour documentary of the 1961-66 Dylan (premiering on PBS Monday and Tuesday, at 9 p.m. each night), and a companion, two-CD soundtrack. The “No Direction Home” DVD, featuring uncut concert performances and other bonus features, is also available.Following are reviews of Dylan and recent CDs featuring interpretations of his songs.Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home: The Soundtrack”produced by Jeff Rosen, Steve Berkowitz, Bruce Dickinson and Martin Scorsese (Columbia/Legacy)With this, the seventh volume of the Bootleg Series that unearths concert and studio material, you’d think we’d have struck the bottom of Dylan’s barrel by now. But the two-CD “No Direction Home” soundtrack features almost all previously unreleased material. Most amazing, is that these versions don’t offer slight variations of what has been heard before, but often stunningly different takes on the material. Even for Dylanophiles, many of these tracks are bound to sound as foreign and fresh as when “Like a Rolling Stone” first came over the radio.Disc 1 begins with the truly exotic: “When I Got Trouble,” recorded by an 18-year-old Dylan in 1959; good-quality home recordings of such traditional tunes as “Dink’s Song” and “Rambler, Gambler,” which reveal that Dylan was tapped into something ancient and deep before he reinvented himself in New York City. The rest of the material is more familiar, but there is much to discover: “Blowin’ in the Wind” that emphasizes the harmonica and Dylan’s weary voice over the lyrics; Dylan’s masterful abilities on the stage in live, solo versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “When the Ship Comes In.”Disc 2 opens with the gentle-sounding “She Belongs to Me,” Dylan accompanied by tasteful electric guitar and bass. And then the universe breaks open with the electric version of “Maggie’s Farm,” the one that drew hisses and threats of pulling the plug at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. What follows is one song after another that forces you to make room in the shelves of your mind for altered versions of tunes whose original forms we assumed were definitive. Among these are a pepped-up “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”; “Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat” transformed into a slow blues; “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” with a different rhythm and style of delivery; and “Visions of Johanna” transformed from its quiet, old self into a noisy rocker.Just when you thought you couldn’t buy another thrill, the set closes with a pair of live tracks: a menacing “Ballad of a Thin Man” dominated by Garth Hudson’s spine-tingling organ, and the legendary “Like a Rolling Stone” from Manchester, England, with Dylan responding to a shout of “Judas” by telling the fan, “I don’t believe you. … You’re a liar!” before exhorting the band to “Play it loud.” Thriving on the heat of the moment, Dylan delivers a mesmerizing take of perhaps his greatest song, drawling his way through “complete unknooowwnn” and “hooow does it feeeel?” till they become accusations, battle lines separating the old from the new.In the booklet, the essay on the ’60s by Rolling Stones producer/manager Andrew Loog Oldham is beyond esoteric. But the pictures sure are fun.
Rodney Crowell, “The Outsider”produced by Crowell and Peter Coleman (Columbia)Rodney Crowell has become an outsider by drifting from country music’s commercial wing to its alternative side. In the process, he has now made three magnificent albums.”The Outsider” features a gorgeous take on Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm,” from 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks” album. Emmylou Harris, trading verses and singing duet with Crowell, adds the emotional wallop; steel guitar gives an extra measure of longing.Elsewhere on the album, Crowell lambastes mindless greed in “The Obscenity Prayer” (Aspen gets a name-check: “Give to me my Aspen winter / Sorry about the World Trade Center); celebrates the pleasures of a simpler life in the title track; and takes aim at politicians and their latest war in “Don’t Get Me Started” – which really makes him an outsider to the country mainstream.Solomon Burke, “Make Do With What You Got”produced by Don Was (Shout Factory)Soul singer Solomon Burke got his career revival with 2002’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” which featured top-rate songwriters (Van Morrison, Tom Waits) giving Burke a crack at their unrecorded songs. Among the tunes was Dylan’s “Stepchild.”For “Make Do With What You Got,” Burke has to make do with songs already recorded, even if most of them are little-known. For “What Good Am I?” from Dylan’s 1989 “Oh Mercy” album, Burke and producer Don Was give the song a jumpy feel that doesn’t jive with the song’s downbeat survey of the self. Burke’s huge voice works better on tunes by former Dylan sideman Robbie Robertson (“It Makes No Difference”) and the Rolling Stones’ “I Got the Blues.”Thea Gilmore, “Songs From the Gutter”
produced by Nigel Stoner (Compass)In 2002, British singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore, 25 at the time, was invited to cut a song for yet another Dylan tribute album. Five days later, she emerged with an echoey, expansive twist on “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” from Dylan’s 1967 album “John Wesley Harding” – and nine original tracks, all of which appear on “Songs From the Gutter.” Dylan’s song of martyrdom is a smart addition to Gilmore’s collection of gritty, literate songs (“The Dirt Is Your Lover Now,” “When Did You Get So Safe?”) that do tend to suggest origins in a low-down place.Johnny Cash, “The Legend”(Columbia/Legacy)This four-CD compilation includes Johnny Cash’s take on “Forever Young,” and his duet with Dylan on “Girl From the North Country” that kicks off Dylan’s 1969 album “Nashville Skyline.” Cash’s “Forever Young” is inexplicably tame, as if he’s keeping his distance from the sentimentality of the song. One wonders what Cash might have done with it later in life, when he was making his series of “American” recordings with producer Rick Rubin.”The Legend” shows just how enormous Cash’s contributions were to American music. It features over 100 tracks, and so many of them have worked their way into the soundtrack of the nation. And to put it further in perspective, the collections doesn’t include any of the “American” recordings – some of Cash’s best stuff – nor does it include two Dylan songs that Cash did so well: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which worked great as a duet with his wife June Carter Cash, or “Wanted Man.”Cash was a huge supporter of Dylan, even writing an open letter to Sing Out! magazine defending Dylan’s defection from traditional folk music.Jerry Garcia Band “Warner Theatre, March 18, 1978″(Jerry Garcia Estate)Legion of Mary, “The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1″(Rhino)
Jerry Garcia was one of the most prolific interpreters of Dylan, singing a dozen or so Dylan tunes from the beginning of the Grateful Dead and through his various side projects. The Dead released an entire album, 2002’s “Postcards of the Hanging,” of live Dylan covers.”Warner Theatre” features a pair of Dylan numbers. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” from 1973’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” gets the languid, reggae-tinged feel the Garcia Band customarily gave it. (I always considered it a sign to head for the bathroom.) “Simple Twist of Fate” (from “Blood on the Tracks”) is equally slow, but Garcia gets more out of it.The two-disc set by Legion of Mary, Garcia’s funked-up ’70 band with keyboardist Merl Saunders, opens with Dylan’s “Tough Mama,” from the 1974 “Planet Waves” album. The mild version doesn’t catch fire till Garcia’s guitar solo toward the end. It is, uncharacteristically, the only Dylan song on the compilation. But Garcia fans should be satisfied with the first official release from Legion of Mary. Recorded live between late 1975 and mid-74, it includes rarities (“Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” “Last Train from Poor Valley”), and early examples of songs that would become staples of Garcia’s solo repertoire (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “I Second That Emotion,” “How Sweet It Is”). Legion of Mary, which also featured saxophonist/flutist Martin Fierro, was notable for portraying a different side of Garcia.Danú, “When All Is Said and Done”produced by Danú (Shanachie)Among the mostly traditional reels, jigs and songs on “When All Is Said and Done,” Irish band Danú finds room for “Farewell, Angelina,” which was recorded in 1965 and first released on 1991’s “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3.” The notes claim that Dylan borrowed the melody (not exactly a preposterous accusation) from old-time songs like “Shrimp Boats are A-Comin'” and “My Horses Ain’t Hungry.” Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice and Dylan’s wistful lyrics are a good match.Robyn Hitchcock, “Spooked”produced by David Rawlings (Yep Roc)In an album of otherwise all original material, Robyn Hitchcock puts his unrefined British accent to “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” from Dylan’s 1997 album “Time Out of Mind.” Softening Hitchcock’s rough edge are American folkies David Rawlings and Gillian Welch.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com