Bob Dylan,
Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
(Columbia Legacy, 2008)

various artists,
A Nod to Bob 2: An Artists' Tribute to Bob Dylan on His 70th Birthday
(Red House, 2011)

I bought my first Bob Dylan album, Highway 61 Revisited, in 1965, and soon thereafter snatched up the five that had come before. I've followed his recordings more or less ever since. (The "more or less" is a consequence of the 1970s and 1980s, when Dylan records were so bewilderingly uneven that no sensible consumer purchased them without guidance.) His artistic renaissance can be dated to 1992, when he returned to traditional music in Good As I Been to You, and it's continued, I think, to the present; the qualifying of this sentence starts in the next paragraph. I'm referring, let me stress, to the CDs; his concerts get conflicting reviews. I thought his most recent album of new material, the underrated Together through Life (2009), was a rock-solid effort, and an unusually energetic, open-hearted one to boot.

In recent years, as the Dylan industry has overseen the reissuing of a host of outtakes, alternate versions, concert material and other obscurities in the self-mockingly titled "Bootleg Series," the effect on many Dylanists, including me, has been a surely unintended mounting frustration with much of Dylan's "official" discography. A case in point: when you listen to the two-disc Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, pay particular attention to the alternate versions of songs from his albums of recent decades, then ask yourself, Isn't just about every one of these a considerable improvement on its "official" equivalent? And while we're at it, why did the astonishing ballad "Red River Shore" languish unreleased till now? It's not only a first-rate Dylan song -- like some of his most enduring work, it's a reimagining of an old folk piece, in this case of the same name -- it's also a magnificent and memorable Dylan performance.

In any event, if superior Dylan songs are getting past us because Dylan signs off on too-often lackluster production -- a point Tell Tale Signs, surely the equal of nearly any Dylan release "official" or otherwise, shockingly underscores -- what do Dylan geeks do? Where do they go?

A modest proposal: Head on over to A Nod to Bob 2. I haven't listened to every Dylan tribute, nor do I want to, but permit me to declare with no immediately discernible reservation that this is the best one I've heard. (The first Nod to Bob, released a decade ago, was good, too, but as practically never happens, the sequel tops the original.) The St. Paul-based Red House has long championed some of the most gifted folk-based singer-songwriters around. More than anybody, including his early hero and model Woody Guthrie, Dylan invented the concept of the "folk-based singer-songwriter." Thus, Red House finds itself uniquely qualified to launch this nobly intentioned reunion of parent and offspring.

The participating Red House artists proceed from the premise that Dylan remains at his core a folk singer -- a fairly obvious truth that still eludes most rock critics -- and that his songs should be handled accordingly. In fact, there are two authentically traditional songs here, both associated with Dylan. They're "House of the Rising Sun" (by Guy Davis, in an arrangement that owes more to the Animals than to Dylan or -- more precisely -- to Dave Van Ronk, from whom Dylan notoriously stole his) and "The Days of Forty-Nine" (Spider John Koerner, in inimitably oddball Spider John fashion). Some of the titles are familiar ones -- "Just Like a Woman" (John Gorka), "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" (Cliff Eberhardt) and a handful more. Others I must have heard at one time or another -- "What Good Am I?" (The Pines), "Born in Time" (Meg Hutchinson) -- but I have no memory of them at all. It must have been the arrangements.

Everybody is in finest of fettle and up to the task at hand, which is to put heart, soul and distinctive voice -- literal and metaphorical -- to the rendering of a chosen song. The results range from very good (Ray Bonneville's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," Eliza Gilkyson's "Jokerman") to stellar (Pieta Brown's "Dirt Road Blues," Jimmy LaFave's "Not Dark Yet," Peter Ostroushko's "Mozambique"). Among the surprises -- not an unpleasant one in the bunch -- is Storyhill's "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," possibly how the Kingston Trio might have done it in an atypically inspired moment. On the CD's 16th and concluding cut, Robin & Linda Williams turn in a delightfully arranged and joyously delivered "Walkin' Down the Line."

When the album is over, the prospect that listeners will skulk away unhappy is too slight to concern us. Chances are larger that they'll just play the CD through again. I've done it many times now. And why not? Nod to Bob 2 is a triumph.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 August 2011

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