By Brian Arsenault
I am always a bit suspicious of organizations aligning themselves with art and artists, even one as “pure” as Amnesty International. Organizations, you see, always have agendas and the only agenda artists should have is their art.
It might not be fair to say but I rather envision Amnesty International supporters as being among those booing Dylan long ago at Newport because he had the audacity to think great music could be coupled with instruments that are electrified. Even though the liner notes deny that, sort of. Ultra lefties have their own problems with tolerance of viewpoints in disagreement with their own.
So the only reasonable thing to do then is to consider this massive tome of 75 songs — a salute to the activism of Amnesty International and the music of Dylan — as a work of art, not simply a political statement. On that basis, for a huge chunk of this work, there is a single word:
Disc 2 alone can stand as a great album on its own. Speaking of lefties, Brit activist Billy Bragg demonstrates that there are some artists who simple “feel” Dylan at a higher level with his rendition of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” about being a prisoner of you own music. Dylan was never that, or at least of other people’s ideas of him and his work.
Earlier, on Disc 1, Patti Smith musically and thematically also evokes all that is best about Bob on “Drifter’s Escape.” You would have guessed that even before you heard this great version. It is Patti Smith after all.
But back to Disc 2:
Angelique Kidjo”s “Lay Lady Lay” may make you cry and it will certainly send a thrill through you. Is there anyone else in the world who can hit such pure notes. When you hear her sing you consider that there may have been a better time musically in the history of the world but you can’t imagine it.
Adele touches almost as deeply with a live recording of “Make You Feel My Love.” How does this kid have such command of a song, any song she sings.
Jackson Brown on Love Minus Zero (No Limit) provides a kind of tribute to Dylan phrasing without being merely imitative.
Jack’s Mannequin makes “Mr. Tambourine Man” as fresh as a spring stream in a meadow.
Lenny Kravitz laughs his way through “Rainy Day Women” but so did Dylan.
And there is Baez. There had to be Joan Baez on this album. “Seven Curses” will make even the most ardent death penalty proponent consider James Joyce’s view that all executions are not only horrible but beyond the power that any government should have.
What girl should ever see the hangman’s limb bent by the weight of her father. You see, A.I., I’m suspicious but not unsympathetic.
All of the above on one of the four discs that comprise this collection.
There are delights and surprises on other discs though they may be less brilliant throughout.
Bryan Ferry convincingly touches on the youth and aging of Dylan’s generation with “Bob Dylan’s Dream” about the “first few friends I had.” We really could get much older, the generation has discovered, hasn’t it?
Pete Townshend’s “Corrina, Corrina” made me smile. I’m not sure why.
Carly Simon brings a woman’s sensibility to “Just Like a Woman”. In fact, female renditions of Dylan tunes resonate throughout. Baez and Patti already mentioned along with the incomparable Kidjo. One of the delightful surprises here is Diana Krall’s “Simple Twist of Fate” wherein she brings out all the beauty of the song. A love song after all.
Disappointments? Not many. Sting does “Girl from the North Country”, a personal favorite, soft and sweet as it should be but he changes so many notes that by the end you almost think you are listening to a different song. And Mark Knopfler continues the tradition begun with his work with Emmy Lou Harris of rendering himself and listeners nearly comatose on “Restless Farewell.”
As noted, though, there are nearly four score songs here and they couldn’t all be magnificent.
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