It was history in the making as several generations of musicians came together to celebrate the songwriting legacy of Bob Dylan. As Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder put it, “The only way you can explain his contributions is by playing his songs.” And what they did with them should have made the Man of the Hour smile.
Dubbed Bobfest by Neil Young during his two-song set, the concert at Madison Square Garden acknowledged the 30th anniversary of the Bard’s debut release and spanned protest songs, love ballads, country numbers and recent work.
An all-star cast was comprised of legends directly connected to Dylan (The Band, Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and George Harrison) and two generations of musicians influenced by him including Young, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp, Chrissie Hynde, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin and Tracey Chapman. Everyone successfully met the challenge of adapting songs such as “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” and “Emotionally Yours” to fit their own respective style. Standouts included Young (“All Along the Watchtower”), Petty & the Heartbreakers (“License to Kill”), 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”).
Besides the evening’s stars, musical MVPs consisted of drummer Anton Fig whose “Late Show with David Letterman” gig causes you to overlook his rock drummer chops and G.E. Smith, Dylan’s former tour guitarist who worked with some of the participants in rehearsals, onstage and led the house band.
While the CD release of “30th Anniversary” provides a memorable listening sensation, the DVD shows that some of those performances came through despite the nervousness of getting it right. A teleprompter provided access to the myriad of words Dylan wrote, and you can see Willie Nelson among others relying on that assistance. Providing a tiny ounce of drama among the political vitriol of “Masters of War,” Vedder made the sign of the cross during the last line “‘til i’m sure that you’re dead.”
Then, there’s the Sinead O’Connor debacle. It could be argued either way — the boobirds prevented her from starting what is essentially a very quiet interpretation of “I Believe in You” or if she had just ignored them and played the song the crowd may have been swayed in her favor.
All the previous performances were a warm up for Dylan’s four-song set. He knocks out “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Girl Of The North Country” solo and is joined by an all-star cast for “My Back Pages” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
Unlike the CD version of this event, the DVD puts Mellencamp’s second number (“Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat”) among the bonus footage. It also includes Nancy Griffith with Carolyn Hester covering “Boots Of Spanish Leather,” Booker T. & The M.G.‘s doing “Gotta Serve Somebody” and a 40-minute Behind the Scenes feature with unreleased rehearsal clips and interviews.
Despite the passage of years, the only thing that’s lost some luster from 1992 are a few clothing choices. Overall, the performances hold up just as much as the source material remains vital and timeless