Time Passes Quickly: Bob Dylan – The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (CD/DVD Review)
By Douglas Heselgrave
When the 30th anniversary concert was announced and advertised as a pay per view television special, the event seemed curious and as if it came out of nowhere. To be sure, the 30th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York and everything that grew out of the cultural conflagration that erupted in Greenwich Village was worthy of commemoration, but cultural values themselves have never usually been enough to inspire an event of this size. It’s important to remember that 1992 was hardly Bob Dylan’s finest hour, and the high points of his career – at least in mainstream terms – were located deeply in the past.
It was a strange period in music in general. The hippy revival spurred on by the resurgence of the Grateful Dead was slowly waning and the grunge music lead by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam was defining taste and fashion for the alternative mainstream. Dylan, himself, remained in limbo throughout these years; tours with Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead – seen by some as a desperate move that his younger self would have sneered at – indicated an artist in need of renewal. He had not managed to capitalize on the artistic revival signaled by 1989’s ‘Oh Mercy’ and had followed it up with ‘Under the Red Sky’, an unfocused album whose moments of brilliance could not cover up for the general listlessness of the singer and his obscured sense of direction. His two acoustic albums, ‘Good As I Been To You’ and ‘World Gone Wrong’ hadn’t come along yet to wipe the slate clean and make way for the great albums ‘Time Out Of Mind’, ‘Love And Theft’, ‘Modern Times’ and ‘Tempest’ that have bridged the gap between those years and today. While it is undeniable that Dylan had earned his place as the greatest American songwriter of his generation long before 1992, it must have been a slightly uneasy experience for him to take part in this celebration at a time when he knew good and well that his current work wasn’t up to his own established standards.
When I first watched the concert, I thought that it was quite good. There were moments that were brilliant and some that failed to hold my attention. Most benefits and all-star shows are like that. As a relatively young person, I remember thinking how old all of the performers looked; I guess we freeze the icons of our youth in time. Watching through the DVDs last week, I was amazed at how young they all looked. The passing years up to their old tricks again.
On that note, it’s quite staggering to realize how many of the artists who contributed to the 30th anniversary concert are no longer with us. On song after song, I noted beautiful vocals, rhythms, guitar solos from musicians who have since passed away, which made my cynical note about 1992 being a weird time to celebrate Dylan pass by the wayside. With the realization of mortality, contributions from George Harrison, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richie Havens, Lou Reed, Duck Dunn, Tommy Makem, Liam and Paddy Clancy have become more than what they were intended to be. I could spend the rest of my life pondering the metaphysics of how all of that love, energy and talent couldn’t simply have disappeared into thin air. Which tiny corner of the universe is buzzing with all of that inspiration now?
If this concert were held today, the lineup would necessarily be a lot different. Who from the old guard could be tapped for such a show? Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Joan Baez? Which new artists? Deer Tick, Mumford and Sons, The Head and The Heart? The more I consider the current options, the better the 1992 show begins to appear.
More to the point, the longer I spend with the performances on the film and CDs – which came and went in the blink of an eye on the night of the show as the organizers tried to cram in as many songs as possible into the three hour time slot – the better most of them sound. At the time, people found things to complain about with regards to the lineup (where were Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell, Mark Knopfler and Jerry Garcia amongst others?) but overall, the producers did a credible job of featuring artists from all periods of Dylan’s career while at the same time booking currently popular artists such as Pearl Jam and Sinead O’Connor. O’Connor, of course, provided the night with its requisite controversy by breaking down when hecklers called her out about ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live the week before, ditching her planned song and singing Bob Marley’s ‘War’ to the stunned crowd. The CD includes a bonus performance of O’Connor rehearsing ‘I Believe In You’ the day before the concert, making her absence the more regrettable. Hers was the best performance bar none. She would have stolen the show.
It’s not an easy job to choose highlights. It’s a matter of personal preference to pick amongst such great and diverse interpretations of Dylan’s songs. Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready’s ‘Masters Of War’ is still a jaw dropper, though I’m not as impressed by vocal gymnastics for their own sake as I was at the time. Johnny and June are lovely on ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, The Band sound loose and down home like they should be singing ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ at a barn dance and not at MSG, but that’s a great part of their charm. Willie Nelson’s phrasing on ‘What Was It You Wanted’ is masterful and weird, while Neil Young wins the award for having the most fun of the night by reeling off the craziest, most joyful electric noise he’s ever let loose on an audience.
Not surprisingly, I was most interested in seeing how Dylan came off and what time had done to colour my memory of his performance at the event. During the late eighties and early nineties, I saw Dylan quite often in concert. After ignoring the Pacific Northwest for years, he started playing once or twice a year in BC and Washington State and I made sure to see him whenever I could. At that time, I remember that his concerts were truly a mixed bag that only the faithful would gamble on. I recall seeing him play two nights in a row and witnessing a miracle one night and a total embarrassment the next, so I came to the DVD with a mixed set of impressions that perhaps didn’t have much to do with what I actually saw and heard that night. The happy news is that Bob sounded pretty darn good on that night. Better than I remember. He snarls and spits his way through a very powerful reading of ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding’ (*)before joining an all-star band to give spirited performances of ‘My Back Pages’ and a rough and ready ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.’ After everybody had left the stage, Dylan came back one more time to deliver a lovely, impromptu ‘Girl From North Country’ to send everyone home.
So, the question remains: is there any reason to watch or buy ‘The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration’ if you saw it when it first came out? A few months ago, I would have probably been indifferent and said ‘it’s up to you’, but after viewing the show straight through and listening to the music again on CD, I realize that it’s far better than I initially remembered. By taking it in, I’ve reclaimed an era in Dylan’s career that I’d hazily written off and forgotten about. Much has been said about how in the intervening years, Dylan has rekindled himself with a series of great albums, an autobiography, by developing skills as a visual artist and sculptor, and truly re-emerging as a great song and dance man.
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com