Bob Dylan Tribute – Town Hall (New York, NY)
Sometimes, tributes that sound like a bad idea wind up surprising you. The initial hesitation when you scan a suspect list of guests evaporates once the event begins. As accolade follows accolade, the event is turning out better than expected. And by the end of the evening, you’re left wondering why you ever doubted it would be successful.
And sometimes a bad idea is just a bad idea.
Such was the case as the New Yorker assembled a collection of writers and musicians to honor the work of Bob Dylan five days before his 60th birthday. It’s a noble goal, but it’s been done plenty of times before. And with the millions of words already devoted to Dylan, do we really need to hear a “prose poem” about the mastery of Blood On The Tracks? Though this salute was surely conceived with good intentions, the result was a predominantly stuffy homage that never really captured the artist’s spirit.
Doubling as a benefit for PEN (an organization dedicated to promoting freedom for writers), the event aimed to honor Dylan through performances of his songs and literary assessments of his work. In his introduction, New Yorker editor David Remnick mentioned that the magazine had participated in tributes like this one in the past, for writers such as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin. While a studied, scholarly tone may have been appropriate for those productions, a salute to Dylan requires a bit more looseness, something almost entirely lacking on this night.
Rickie Lee Jones started the evening by seductively cooing “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”. Understated without being dull, Jones’ performance established what looked to be a promising evening. But she was followed by Beat poet Anne Waldman, who read an overwrought, seemingly endless poem comparing Dylan to a shaman. As Waldman rambled on, it became clear the night would soon slip into an overly reverential abyss.
Scholar Christopher Ricks further sunk the evening with a breathlessly delivered dissertation on Dylan’s rhyming talents. Though Ricks garnered plenty of laughs from the crowd, the speech seemed better suited to a college classroom. Similarly, authors Rick Moody and Bobbie Ann Mason praised Dylan as if they were asked to write a term paper on his significance, while T. Coraghessan Boyle attempted to lighten the mood, but without much success. Perhaps the most tedious moment came toward the end of the night when, searching for profundity, Martin Amis ended his time onstage by simply reading the lyrics to “The Times They Are A-Changin'”.
The musicians did their best to liven up the salute. Greg Brown’s booming voice brought out the subtlety of “Farewell Angelina”, while Graham Parker and Tracy Chapman delivered solid, if not exactly lively, renditions of “I Threw It All Away” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, respectively. Patti Smith provided one of the evening’s memorable moments with a gorgeous, a cappella rendering of “Dark Eyes”, her simple approach standing in sharp contrast to much of the evening’s high-minded, scholarly babble.
But it was the Esquires, humbly described in the program notes as “a bar band based in Nashville, Tennessee,” who ultimately gave the evening a much-needed shot of adrenaline. Kicking off the second half of the show, the trio of David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and David Steele stomped their way through a ragged-but-right version of “Idiot Wind”, with Rawlings spitting out the words in a gritty snarl. It may not have been the most technically sound performance of the night, but it was certainly the most engaging.
Dylan himself closed the show, albeit via a clip from “The Steve Allen Show” in which the young Dylan endured awkward questioning from Allen before launching into “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”. In the clip, Dylan begins laughing uncomfortably after Allen reads flowery praise from music writer Ralph Gleason. One would expect Dylan might have had the same reaction had he chosen to attend this tribute.