Rating:What do you get when a bunch of bestselling artists pays homage to another bestselling artist? The very definition of pledge week music. In 1992, some of rock’s most undeniable talents—and a few deniable ones—celebrated the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s first album. At the time, who knew that some of Dylan’s greatest records were yet to come? Thirty years in the business is a long time, and this could have been a valedictory performance for one of the few artists who truly earn the label iconic. Thank God it wasn’t.
The problem with icons is overexposure and dilution. For years, I thought of Bob Dylan as Somebody Important I Was Supposed to Like But Didn’t. A rogue performance artist got me to hear beyond the received hype that this funny-looking guy with the voice I couldn’t understand was a genius. When I started to dig into the Dylan back catalog, I finally heard it. From Blonde on Blonde to The Basement Tapes to Blood on the Tracks, I heard an artist who cannot help being himself, who paints strange scenes with such confidence that I had to listen and had to hear more. This was an artist who transcended his influences in old American blues and folk music and forged a singular voice that sounded like no other.
How do you properly pay homage to such an artist? There are more Dylan tribute albums than there are proper Dylan albums. This is the scenario that plays out over and over again through the 33 tracks of The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration. It all begins with John Cougar Mellencamp. “Sussudio.” “Wannabe.” Chipmunk Punk. These are just a few of the things I would rather listen to than John Cougar Mellencamp singing Dylan. He gets two shots, bland bar-band versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.”
Stevie Wonder and his harmonica are national treasures, but their crowd-pleasing performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” does not add anything memorable to the canon. But after that classic folk song comes one of the set’s surprises, one of the few performances that doesn’t just rest on laurels. Lou Reed took “Foot of Pride,” an outtake from the 1983 album Infidels, and makes it a Lou Reed song. Backed by members of Booker T. and the MG’s, Reed assumes complete authority and keeps it up for almost nine minutes.
The set is mostly inessential and predictable. Fans of mannered vocals may love Eddie Vedder’s “Masters of War,” but for me it rings the very bell of self-righteousness that I bet turns off people from Dylan and his acolytes. Somewhat more successful is Tracy Chapman’s “The Times They Are A-changing,” but it just made me want to hear Chapman’s own music.
That’s the problem with tribute concerts. If you try to replicate the original, you’re preserving the music in amber as a static, lifeless thing. If you inject your own musical sensibility into it, you risk pissing off fans. The former approach is unfortunately the kind that fills Madison Square Garden. But did Dylan at his height piss off fans? Judas, anyone? The worst way to pay homage to an iconoclastic icon is to go through the motions and put on a greatest hits show.
The country musicians assembled do a better job than most of the rock acts. It’s easier to sustain an outlaw persona over the course of several decades than it is to stay a rebel. So Johnny Cash (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” performed with June Carter Cash) and Willie Nelson (“What Was It You Wanted,” from the Lanois-produced Oh Mercy) are well cast. But Kris Kristofferson sings “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” not as if addressing a prospective lover, but as if nodding to the bottle of gin he’s half drunk.
Neil Young’s struggling, warbly voice lights a fire under the proceedings, his reading of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” more desperate than defiant. Young’s departure from the politely venerating greatest hits script makes his performances some of the more interesting on the set, but cranking up the distortion on “All Along the Watchtower” doesn’t quite make up for the sluggishness, and it’s too bad the distortion that was part of Young’s signature at the time wasn’t put in front of the mix.
Dylan’s cohorts from the Traveling Wilburys do well by his catalog. George Harrison’s attempts to take on Dylan’s inflection on “Absolutely Sweet Marie” only make him sound more like George Harrison. That’s what artistic vision does for you. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “License to Kill” is one of the strongest performances here—like Reed, Petty makes the song his own.
Finally, Dylan takes the stage himself for a handful of his classics. The genius delivers on the old chestnut “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” for most of its six-minute duration, and a closing “Girl from the North Country” is a solid, if unrevelatory, performance. But you have to get through two more pledge music encores before you hear more unencumbered Dylan. Would anybody who wasn’t there want to listen to all-star ensembles on “My Back Pages” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”?
The deluxe CD and DVD set include bonus tracks that, with one exception, are as forgettable as the main act. For instance, Eric Clapton makes out of “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright” what he’s been making for much of his post-Layla solo career: an effective sleep aid. But the set has one more surprise to give up. Sinead O’Connor’s spare, powerful “I Believe in You” is, like the concert’s other rare highlights, an instance of the interpreter making the song her own. O’Connor’s performance was taken from a sound check because she was booed off the stage during the concert, her star in free-fall after she tore up a picture of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live.” Ironically, she was performing one of Dylan’s gospel songs.
Bonus tracks on the DVD include more Mellencamp (for that one person who asked), plus Nanci Griffith and Carolyn Hester’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” and more Booker T. and the MG’s. That makes a half dozen good-to-excellent performances and an essential Lou Reed track out of 33. You’d be better off putting on a Dylan album. Any Dylan album. Even when Dylan phones it in or takes a misguided detour into schmaltz, he gives it his personal vision, even if it’s the personal vision of a professional who’s just coasting. Bad Dylan beats an uninspired cover band any day.