At Bob Dylan‘s anniversary celebration, held at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 16, 1992, the event transcended the man. Between the stunning range of artists who performed Dylan’s songs – from Stevie Wonder to Roger McGuinn, Tracy Chapman to Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp to the Clancy Brothers – and Sinead O’Connor‘s emotional tug of war with the audience, there was no individual hero. Even when Dylan himself took the stage to close the show, he seemed willfully to thwart the natural curve of the evening’s climax, subverting the role of feted sage with the mannerisms of a reluctant gun-shy lover.
But if no single hero emerged, the songs themselves spoke arrestingly. Perhaps more than anyone else’s, Dylan’s songs have, immediately upon birth, become the property of everyone; they bear his unique stamp, but they also allow the artists who perform them to be profoundly themselves. The performances on the double-CD Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (also available in video form) are an extraordinary tribute to that quality.
Some renditions truly stand out. Lou Reed‘s explosive “Foot of Pride” expands the moral weight of the original (from The Bootleg Series), while Booker T. and the MG’s, who served as the core of the evening’s house band, make the earth’s gravity palpable in every backbeat. In a resonant demonstration of the politics of Dylan’s songs and their relevance to younger artists, Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder’s “Masters of War” rings with force and dignity. Neil Young‘s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “All Along the Watchtower” are otherworldly, with fierce guitar excursions as eloquent as Dylan’s lyrics. The O’Jays spin “Emotionally Yours” into fervent gospel. And Dylan’s own renderings of “Girl From the North Country” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” contrasting innocence and stoic nihilism, dispel any illusion that he lent much credence to the show’s ritual of deification. Tellingly, one of the clearest lines in his mumbled “It’s Alright, Ma” is “It’s easy to see without looking too far/That not much/Is really sacred.”
There were a few uneven moments as well. Johnny and June Carter Cash’s upbeat version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is ill-suited to the song, and George Harrison‘s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is off-key and uninspired. But overall the album is a remarkable moment of rock history and a fitting testimonial to a body of songs so deeply familiar that melodies, images and even turns of phrase have entered our common language. These songs offer a map of the inexplicable places where politics and personal experience meet, probing and articulating a gamut of feelings that can be found nowhere else. Rock & roll may have become fragmented and diverse, the music of the aging as well as the young. The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, however, reminds us that Dylan’s voice informs its very essence.