In the end, it was about the songs.
On October 16, 1992, an impressive and eclectic group of artists gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the purpose of celebrating the music of Bob Dylan on the occasion of his 30th anniversary of recording. Bringing together musical greats as far-flung as Johnny Cash and Eddie Vedder, The Clancy Brothers and Lou Reed, the four-hour show celebrated a truly remarkable lifetime of songs in front of a sold-out audience of over 18,000. Warmly dubbed the Bobfest by participant Neil Young, the show was broadcast around the world and featured a cast of musical notables performing carefully chosen and often surprising selections from the incomparable Dylan songbook. At evening's end, the man of honor himself appeared on stage and gracefully brought it all back home again. In a world where all-star celebrity gatherings have become commonplace, the Bob Dylan celebration stood out as, first and foremost, a legitimately memorable musical event.
John Mellencamp, who's been covering "Like A Rolling Stone" in concert for years, bravely took on the Dylan classic early in the show and delivered a fairly faithful and altogether convincing cover featuring strong vocal help from Pat Peterson and Sue Medley. Joining Mellencamp and his excellent band for the event on organ was Al Kooper, reprising his prominent part from Dylan's 1965 original, which was voted the best single of the last 25 years by "Rolling Stone" in 1988. Mellencamp — whose been instrumental in the activities of Farm Aid, which Dylan helped inspire with his onstage comments at Live Aid, and who directed Dylan's "Political World" music video in 1989 — was also in fine form for a rousing, bluesy "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" from 1966's "Blonde On Blonde".
One of the obvious emotional highlights of the show was Stevie Wonder's endlessly soulful rendition of "Blowin' In The Wind," a song Wonder brought to he Top Ten of the Pop and R&B charts back in 1966, three years after Peter, Paul & Mary first introduced it to the masses. As Wonder pointed out in his moving introduction, the message of "Blowin' In The Wind" remains, sadly, one of enduring relevance. A contemporary folk standard originally recorded for 1962's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," the song found Wonder working his gospel-tinged magic alongside Booker T. Jones and the M. G.'s — the phenomenally adept house band for the show.
Booker T & M. G.'s now features Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass and Anton Fig, filling in for the late Al Jackson, on drums. The group enjoyed a run of instrumental hits in the sixties, including "Green Onions" and "Time Is Tight," as well as serving as the legendary house band for countless Stax classics. The very able musical director of the show was G. E. Smith, long-time "Saturday Night Live" band leader and veteran Dylan guitarist. Also making a significant contribution to the proceedings was session drumming great Jim Keltner, who's worked with the Traveling Wilbury's and just about everybody else over the years.
In a winning example of one ingenious lyricist honoring another, Lou Reed righteously rocked out on "Foot Of Pride," an obscure outtake from the 1983 "Infidels" album that Reed, like so many other less famous Bob Dylan fans, discovered on 1991's "The Bootleg Series (Vols. I-III)" set. Hardly an obvious song choice, Reed's "Foot Of Pride" was a gutsy as well as a hard-rocking reminder of just how much depth there is to Bob Dylan's body of work.
The riveting acoustic rendition of "Masters Of War" by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready, was arguably the evenings most pleasant surprise. These two young Dylan fans didn't need any loud Seattle sonics to get across Dylan's pointed protest classic from "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." Vedder, who blissfully watched rehearsals for the concert from the front row of a nearly empty Madison Square Garden, proved with his wonderfully intense interpretation that when it comes to a great song, there's no such thing as a generation gap.
Tracy Chapman — who helped bring folk music back to the forefront with her acclaimed 1988 debut album, and who has toured with Dylan occasionally in recent years — offered an eloquent and moving solo acoustic version of the often-covered "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the title track of Dylan's 1964 effort. In Chapman's capable hands, the song's power remains undimmed by time.
Country and rockabilly legend Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan have a long history of mutual admiration for one another. They first met at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and went on to record a session together in Nashville in 1969. The normally TV-shy Dylan even appeared on a Cash television special taped at the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. Cash and Dylan's duet on "Girl Of The North Country" was featured on Dylan's groundbreaking country-rock effort "Nashville Skyline", for which Cash wrote the Grammy Award-winning liner notes. At the show, Cash and June Carter Cash, his wife and longtime musical partner, teamed up for a surprisingly celebratory, down-home version of "It Ain't Me, Babe," a song from "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" that Cash took up the charts in 1964, well before the Turtles turned it into a pop smash in 1965.
Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan are clearly two kindred spirits. Recently the pair collaborated on "Heartland" from Nelson's new "Across The Borderline" album, which also included a cover of Dylan's "What Was It You Wanted" — a standout track from 1989's "Oh Mercy" that Nelson performed for the first time at the event. Playing bass on this swampy and sly rendition was Don Was, who produced "Across The Borderline" as well as co-producing Dylan's 1990 effort "Under The Red Sky."
Nelson and Was stuck around to back up Kris Kristofferson for his appropriate mellow version of "I'll Be Your baby Tonight," the song from Dylan's 1968 album "John Wesley Harding." Kristofferson — one of the many gifted and literate young singer-songwriters of the sixties and seventies who faced daunting critical comparisons to Dylan — became friendly with Dylan on the set of Sam Peckinpah's 1973 western film "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid", in which they both appeared. Even earlier, however, Kristofferson worked as the studio janitor during the famed "Blonde On Blonde" sessions.
A monumental display of blues power came from veteran Texan guitar hero Johnny Winter, who threw down a furious deep-blues take on "Highway 61 Revisited," which was Winter's first cut on his 1970 three-sided sophomore Columbia release, "Second Winter." The guitar line-up of Winter, Steve Cropper, and G. E. Smith was in fierce form for the song, living up to the spirit of the late Mike Bloomfield's rifting on Dylan's 1965 original.
Ron Wood's barn-burning version of "Seven Days" provided another of the evening's most happy surprises. An unreleased rocker performed live by Dylan on 1976's "Rolling Thunder Revue," the song was subsequently recorded by Wood for his 1979 album "Gimme Some Neck". With Heartbreaker Howie Epstein joining the house band on bass, the Stone alone, who has often played and recorded with Dylan over the years, came through with a great throaty vocal that was more than a little reminiscent of the song's writer.
Richie Havens, who in his early days played many of the same Greenwich Village folk haunts as Dylan, first cut "Just Like A Woman" for his "Mixed Bag" album back in 1967. He's subsequently recorded and performed numerous Dylan songs, some of which can be heard on his 1987 collection "Richie Havens Sings The Beatles And Dylan". His solo acoustic version of the song at the celebration was a powerful testament to his abilities as a distinctive interpretive singer.
Arguably the foremost Irish folk singers in the world, The Clancy Brothers from Carrick-On-Suir in the county Tipperary were already a famous group during Dylan's early folkie days. For the Dylan show, they were joined by their longtime musical associate and special guest Tommy Makem as well as their nephew Robbie O'Connell for a haunting traditional take on "When The Ship Comes In," a stirring ballad which first appeared on "The Times They Are A-Changin'" album. The Brothers flew in from Ireland specifically to play the show.
Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and Shawn Colvin — a trio of the most gifted singer-songwriters around and major Bob Dylan fans all — teamed up to trade verse for a gorgeous, harmony-drenched cover of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," a "Basement Tapes" gem that was rerecorded by Dylan with Happy Traum for 1972's "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II" set, as well as being a standout cut on The Byrd's 1968 classic "Sweethearts Of The Rodeo" album.
Another kindred spirit and inspired party guest who turned in a great performance was Neil Young, who somehow transformed the M. G.'s and drumming ace Jim Keltner into a fantastically loose, Crazy Horse-styled outfit for a strong reading of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" from "Highway 61 Revisited", and an extended, fiery version of "All Along The Watchtower" that borrowed some of its kinetic power from Jimi Hendrix's famed reworking of the "John Wesley Harding" song.
Everyone from Sting to Bette Midler to the Heptones has covered "I Shall Be Released," but Chrissie Hynde, the gifted Pretenders auteur, managed to make the song her own with a radiant performance at the Dylan event, featuring some prominent keyboard assistance from Paul Shaffer. The song was part of the famed "Basement Tapes", written and casually recorded with The Band at Big Pink in Woodstock in 1967, and subsequently covered by The Band for its extraordinary 1968 debut.
The traditionally show-stopping Eric Clapton, who performed a duet with Dylan on "Sing Language" from his "No Reason To Cry" album in 1976, came through with a startling and moving performance at the celebration. The highlight of his set — which also included a luminous "Love Minus Zero, No Limit" — was a truly revelatory rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," from "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," that Clapton and Booker T. Jones rearranged into a seductive new bluesy masterpiece, complete with some incendiary soloing from the guitar master himself.
Famed for such seventies soul smashes as "Back Stabbers," "Love Train" and "For The Love Of Money," The O'Jays had a Top Five R&B hit with "Emotionally Yours," a delicate love song form 1985's "Empire Burlesque" that the group recorded in two completely different arrangements on its 1990 "Emotionally Yours" album. Backed by a gospel choir featuring the great Cissy Houston, The O'Jays brought a churchy spirit to the festivities with their stately version of the song.
The history of The Band is, of course, inextricably tied to that of Bob Dylan. It was only fitting, then, that the current incarnation of The Band — featuring original members Levon Helm, Rich Danko and Garth Hudson — came together for a fine, loose-grooving version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece." The song was originally recorded with Leon Russell on piano in 1971 for "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. II," the same year that it became a highlight of The Band's album "Cahoots."
A fellow Traveling Wilbury and longtime friend, George Harrison goes way back with Dylan. Before their prominent Wilbury collaboration, Dylan and the newly former Beatle co-wrote "I'd Have You Anytime" for Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," the 9170 album for which Harrison also recorded a version of Dylan's "If Not For You." For the celebration, Harrison returned to Madison Square Garden, site of the 1971 Concerts For Bangladesh, and utterly charmed the crowd by delivering an exquisite, clearly loving rendition of "Absolutely Sweet Marie" from "Blonde On Blonde."
Tom Petty (another wildly talented Wilbury brother in good standing) and the eternally impressive Heartbreakers recorded and toured the world extensively with Dylan for a period during the mid-eighties. At the Dylan event, Petty & The Heartbreakers — guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein and drummer Stan Lynch — peak form, offering a totally inspired and subtle reading of "License To Kill," an undedrappreciated number from Dylan's 1983 "Infidels" album. Switching gears brilliantly, they tore into a wild, rollicking rave-up performance of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" from the "Blonde On Blonde" album, that brought the house down.
Roger McGuinn, founder of The Byrds, has been a major interpreter of Dylan's material over the years. In 1965, he and other Byrds transformed Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" into a global smash, and went on to record many other Dylan compositions, including "All I Really Want To Do," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "My Back Pages" and "Chimes Of Freedom." Joined by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, McGuinn and his Rickenbacker let "Mr. Tambourine Man" ring out wonderfully one more time.
As for the man himself, Dylan began his own set with "Song To Woody," a moving composition from his debut album that remains a gracious salute to Dylan's own early influence, Woody Guthrie. Unfortunately, technical problems prevent the song's inclusion here. Dylan followed with a wonderfully intense rendition of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" from "Bringing It All Back Home," that served as a vivid reminder of his incomparable acoustic power. "My Back Pages," originally from 1964's "Another Side Of Bob Dylan," became a history-making group effort, with McGuinn, Petty, Young, Clapton, Dylan and Harrison all trading off the classic verses. Then "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" — the elegiac standard from the "Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid" soundtrack recently covered by Guns N' Roses — brought all the evening's players out for a memorable ensemble encore.
Finally, after the television satellite feed was shut down, Bob Dylan generously returned to the stage for a lovely, understated version of "Girl Of The North Country" that proved one more time what one man can do armed only with his voice, guitar, and extraordinary songs.
— David Wild