It was meant to celebrate the artistic career of Bob Dylan but, instead, the tribute concert held three decades after the release of the Bard’s 1962 debut album became better known for the Madison Square Garden crowd booing Sinead O’Connor off the stage. The show featured a host of artists connected to Dylan (The Band, Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and George Harrison) as well as two generations of musicians influenced by him (Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Ron Wood and Tracey Chapman). Surprisingly, the night didn’t include Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez.
In the case of O’Connor she was still “hot” after her heartbreaking interpretation of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But that was negated by her “Saturday Night Live” appearance when she ripped up a photo of the very popular Pope John Paul II. In what turned out to be a mammoth-sized ironic twist to the evening, this artist who pushed against authority was rejected by an audience that deified another one for his protest material. In one of two bonus tracks on the “Deluxe Edition” a rehearsal recording of O’Connor’s covering “I Believe in You” presents what was lost due to the boobirds.
Besides making this out of print document available again, what the “Bob Dylan – The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration – Deluxe Edition” does on two CDs is remind us of the heartfelt and rousing performances rather than dwell on the Sinead drama. The passing of time allows us to rediscover the actual musical celebration rather than the headline-grabbing news. (Despite the title, the deluxe version still leaves off contributions by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Nanci Griffith & Carolyn Hester and John Hammond.)
While the concert is reminiscent in concept to 2012’s Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International, which featured 80 acts reshaping his material into rock, hip-hop, folk, country, jazz and blues, the lineup here offers far more consistent rewards.
All the previously-mentioned artists do a fine job with Dylan’s songs – “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie” – but the standout moments find Lou Reed (“Foot of Pride”), Johnny Winter (“Highway 61 Revisited”), Ronnie Wood (“Seven Days”), Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready (“Masters of War”) and Richie Havens (“Just Like a Woman”) allude to particular musical eras of Dylan’s life yet make each interpretation completely in tune with their own persona.
Of course, all those performances were a warm up for the Man of the Hour who closed out Bobfest (Neil Young’s term for the event) with “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” an all-star cast for “My Back Pages” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and a solo “Girl Of The North Country.” Although he didn’t offer a heartfelt speech to summarize the night, that missing moment of sentimentality only emphasized what was really being honored then and why it still holds up today – a timeless, inspiring catalog.