The Music of Bob Dylan: a Benefit for Music for Youth, Lincoln Center, NYC- 11/9
NYC ROLL-TOP: Waving to the Bobhead
Only the mercurial Chan Marshall — generally written off by all in attendance as batshit crazy — acknowledged the eyes of Bob Dylan, which peered over the Avery Fisher stage from a garish banner hung above the drum riser. Dylan's face (cropped tightly down to his judgmental eyes from a recent press photo) was squeezed amid much other text: the title of the benefit (The Music of Bob Dylan At Lincoln Center), its benevolent corporate sponsors (you know, American Express and whatnot), and its cause (Music For Youth, An Initiative of UJA-Federation of New York) (the UJA being the United Jewish Appeal).
Stagehands dressed like Mafioso enacted quick changeovers, charged with keeping a schedule literally calculated to the minute. And what a schedule. While 1992's Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden featured many of Dylan's contemporaries, Knitting Factory impresario Michael Dorf concentrated on subsequent generations. Nearly everybody was represented. Indie rockers of the current class (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Cat Power) and previous ones (Bob Mould, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth), downtown jazzbos (Jamie Saft, Medeski Martin and Wood), punks (Patti Smith), hip-hop acts (The Roots), don't-call-me-countrypolitans (Jay Farrar, Ryan Adams), hippies (Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes), and others gathered to tackle the great leveler of rock: the Dylan songbook.
On and off they went: some egregious, some completely breathtaking, and all surprising. Most stuck with Dylan's '60s work, and got out of it only what they brought with them. Spottiswoode & His Enemies played the token "Times They Are A-Changin'," which — though they said nothing overt — came off as an obligatory statement on the just-concluded elections. Natalie Merchant and minimalist composer Philip Glass turned in a disappointing "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" (great collaboration, but a sloppy song that gets even sloppier when stretched into icy minimalism). Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo — accompanied by SY cohort Steve Shelley on drums, former Beck collaborator Smokey Hormel on guitar, and John Medeski on organ — came closest to channeling the thin, wild mercury music of the amphetamine years, with a triumphant "Positively 4th Street." There was also a stately Allen Toussaint reading of "Mama, You Been On My Mind."
The evening's biggest surprise, too, came on '60s material: "Masters of War," specifically, which the Roots (three of 'em, anyway) sung for two verses to the "Star Spangled Banner," before veering into ominously martial rolls, and a full-on "Machine Gun" jam, stretching and veering, as if they might not sing the final lines. Which they did.
Others, probably in direct proportion to record sales from those periods, dipped into other decades. Medeski, Martin, and Wood gathered around Oliver Wood at centerstage for a slightly awkward "Buckets of Rain" (the only representative of Blood on the Tracks), and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar delivered a forlorn (if slightly too fast) "Going, Going, Gone." Eighties tunes got fair hearings, if only because so few have covered them before (such as Jill Sobule’s "Ring Them Bells").
Phil Lesh and two of his collaborators were the only ones to draw from Dylan's recent work. Lesh croaked "Thunder on the Mountain" (from the new Modern Times) accompanied by Warren Haynes, Joan Osborne unfolded a sparse, pedal-steel laced "Make You Feel My Love" (from 1997’s Time Out of Mind), and Ryan Adams dropped a reggaefied "Love Sick" in the middle of the night’s few actual jams, on a dramatic "Isis" that played like a cranked-up Crazy Horse. Lesh’s other collaborator on the bill, Haynes, chose "I Shall Be Released," one of the most perfect songs ever written, but which has lost much of its effect over the years because few but the Band’s Richard Manuel ever really sounded like he meant it, Haynes included.
The idea of Bob Dylan's songwriting has always been something of a strawman — at least in that people often use it as an excuse when they say they don't actually listen to his music: "Oh, you know, I like his songs, but I can't stand that voice. I'll listen to other people sing them." The fact is that for the amount of people who’ve covered Dylan’s songs, it’s only a small minority that have ever done anything meaningful with them — or, rather, meaningful to somebody else who might be listening. Still, playing Dylan tunes (even if just in his own living room) can be an extraordinarily personal experience, and fun, so nobody can fault Warren Haynes for wanting to play "I Shall Be Released" without adding much to it or Spottiswoode wanting to bellow that "The Times They Are A-Changin’" in early 21st century America.
But, as imperfect as Dylan is, almost nobody will do anything that touches him, which is maybe why Chan Marshall kept turning around and looking at Dylan's eyes while she played, and maybe why she evaded the issue entirely by playing "House of the Rising Sun," a tune Dylan covered but didn't write. But, who knows, it seemed to make her just as happy as what anybody else played, which is surely why she waved giddily to Dylan's eyes as she left the stage.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com