The ticket said "Columbia Records celebrates the music of Bob Dylan," but it was Neil Young who nailed the name when he dubbed the memorable all-star event the Bobfest. After all, what – or more accurately who – else could cause Johnny and June Carter Cash to rock out and Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam to unplug?
Throughout the four-hour, pay-per-view-broadcast tribute to Dylan, held at New York's Madison Square Garden on October 16th, some impressive party guests threatened to steal the show, and one who gave an aborted performance – Sinead O'Connor – grabbed most of the headlines with her controversy du jour.
Stevie Wonder spoke eloquently of how sadly relevant the words of "Blowin' in the Wind" remain today, then proceeded to soulfully make the standard his own. Neil Young seemed to transform the house band into Crazy Horse as he ripped through inspired versions of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "All Along the Watchtower." A vaguely godlike Eric Clapton masterfully remade "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." George Harrison lovingly rendered "If Not for You," while Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers offered a wonderfully subtle reading of Dylan's underappreciated "License to Kill" then a wild raveup of "Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35." And in a smart nod from the new generation, the aforementioned Pearl Jam members didn't even need any Seattle sonics to make "Masters of War" a righteous, intense thrill.
Finally, though, the evening belonged to Dylan, who in both his own fine performance and through his songs offered a powerful testament to what one man can do armed only with a guitar, a harmonica and a remarkable lifetime of songs.
"This is kind of the ultimate event," said Johnny Cash, a longtime fan and friend of Dylan's, "because it's celebrating Bob's talent, and to me, with everything else he's been, Bob Dylan is still our greatest American folk songwriter."
Eddie Vedder – who seemed positively transfixed as he watched the entire Friday-afternoon rehearsal from the front row of the Garden, then the entire show from the side of the stage – seemed overwhelmed by the day's proceedings. "I was blown away," he said. "Blown away to be here and blown away by all I saw. I'm still taking it all in."
"That was as much fun as I could ever have," said Lou Reed, who spent the day blissfully bonding with his fellow performers. "As much fun as anyone could legally have."
"Now that," said a beaming Tom Petty backstage after the show, "was one cool party."
* * *
The rock & roll party of the year came together in recent months, coordinated by Dylan's management and Columbia Records president Don Ienner. "The idea was to pay tribute to Bob and his incredible songs," said Ienner. "Over the last thirty years with Columbia, he's changed music and the world. If anyone deserves a party, it's him."
Some people, however, felt they didn't deserve being charged the $50 and $80 for tickets (a limited number of $150 seats were reserved for record-industry types wanting some hospitality privileges). Although co-executive producer Kevin Wall estimated that the show cost more than $5 million to produce, many observers were taken aback by the decision to make the show a for-profit event. Nevertheless, the 18,200 tickets for the show sold out in just over an hour.
But by the time most of the artists made their way to New York for rehearsals at the Kaufman Astoria Studios, in Queens, S.I.R Studios, in Manhattan, and the Garden itself, such issues seemed irrelevant, as the performers seemed swept up in the spirit of the event. Artists mingled freely in the lobby of the Rihga Royal Hotel, in midtown, where most of the acts were put up. Rehearsals on Thursday night and Friday afternoon became amazing private Garden parties, with even the biggest stars sitting in the seats of the nearly empty arena, happily checking out what everyone else was playing. Old friends caught up, while new connections were formed – Tom Petty and members of Pearl Jam struck up a mutual-admiration society throughout the day, and Sinead O'Connor agreed to record a duet with Willie Nelson and Don Was over the weekend. Dylan himself kept a typically low profile but was said by all who spent time with him to be in a sweet, upbeat mood.
The only remotely negative talk behind the scenes before the show was of artists who were curiously not in attendance – Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Joan Baez, Van Morrison, Bono, Elvis Costello (whose immigration papers were said to have been mishandled) and Axl Rose, who was rumored to want on to the show at the last minute. Still, the fact is that many artists closely associated with Dylan over the years – Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of the Band; Roger McGuinn; Cash; George Harrison; and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – were present, and by show time, such concerns seemed forgotten.
Backstage, things were friendly, warm and surprisingly low-key, even with a procession of notables that included Martin Scorsese, John McEnroe and Tatum O'Neal, Penny Marshall, Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper, Shirley MacLaine, Lenny Kravitz, Sean Lennon Ono, Jakob Dylan, Carly Simon and, most bizarrely, Donald Trump, who forced his way into a conversation between Tom Petty and Lou Reed, leaving them baffled by his hearty endorsement of their "jamming." The show itself kicked off with "Gotta Serve Somebody" from the top-notch house band, which featured legendary soul keyboardist Booker T. Jones and MGs guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn, with session great Jim Keltner and Anton Fig on drums. Longtime Saturday Night Live bandleader and guitarist G.E. Smith – who served Dylan so well on the road in the Eighties – acted as musical director. The selection of the band was an ingenious choice on Dylan's part as the group lent the proceedings an exceedingly soulful coherence. "The whole night was like one long epiphany for me," said Smith.
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