In 1975, T-Bone Burnett hit the road as a cast member, way down on the bill, singing and playing guitar in Bob Dylan's mobile song circle, the Rolling Thunder Revue. On October 20, at New York's Beacon Theater, Burnett — now a very busy and successful record producer — was the boss and headliner of his own living jukebox, the Speaking Clock Revue, a three-hour spin of singers mostly performing songs produced for them by Burnett. The lanky Texan was barely on stage himself: he made a quick appearance with his emcee, Elvis Costello, both in their Coward Brothers disguise, to harmonize behind Jeff Bridges in "Fallin' and Flyin'" from the Crazy Heart soundtrack; and gave a few words about the recent documentary Waiting for Superman and the perilous state of education in America. (The show was a benefit for the Participant Foundation, which promotes music and arts classes in public schools.)
But the social urgency, emotional complexity and folk-blues authenticity Burnett pursues in the studio was evident all night on stage, even when Karen Elson sang a couple of numbers from The Ghost Who Walks, which was produced by her husband Jack White, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket jolted the first set with his stark mix of clear high pining and brusque acoustic guitar. The bluegrass patriarch, Dr. Ralph Stanley, was singing "Man of Constant Sorrow" before Burnett was born — for 64 years, Stanley noted proudly — and when he sang it again tonight, in a grainy fluttering voice that showed his age but also his resilience, he illuminated the long unbroken road between his first records and Burnett's work.
Costello started the night with some affectionate irony, playing "Brilliant Mistake" from his 1986 Burnett-produced album, King of America. The opening line: "He thought he was the King of America." But as Costello drew from his latest album with Burnett, National Ransom (including the '78 Attractions-meets-barn dance charge of the title track), John Mellencamp veered from the heavy turbulence of "Troubled Land" to the solo plea "Save Some Time to Dream" and Burnett's latest protegés, the Secret Sisters, covered Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe with sharp, arcing harmonies and youthful brawny delight, it was hard not to believe that Burnett is running things right, on his chosen turf.
Burnett made sure singers moved quickly through the two sets, using a house band composed of his usual session cats and led by guitarist Marc Ribot. At one point, the Punch Brothers, the fine, brash bluegrass outfit featuring singer-mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, kept the music going, ripping through Jimmie Rodgers' "Brakeman's Blues" as roadies set up the grand pianos for Elton John and Leon Russell's set of songs from their Burnett-produced record, The Union. Gregg Allman, who debuted material from his forthcoming solo album, seemed tentative between songs, even a little naked without his usual band. He thanked the anonymous donor of his new liver — he had a successful transplant in June — in a soft voice. But Allman found his strength in a cover of Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied" and made an affecting cameo during John and Russell's "Gone to Shiloh," taking the verse Neil Young does on The Union.
John and Russell only reprised half of their record, which they did in its entirety the previous evening. But it was time enough for the funky regret of Russell's "If It Wasn't for Bad," the Seventies-Stones jollies of "Monkey Suit" and the double-piano gospel-choir stampede "Hey Ahab." The finale was basically a group bow, with Burnett, to The Union march "There's No Tomorrow." When Stanley came out, he stood near the wings, away from the younger folks on the other side of the stage, as if he wasn't sure he fit in their company. But then as everyone walked off, Burnett came over and draped an arm over the smaller 83-year-old man — the picture of an odd couple that made a perfect match.