One day after Twyla Tharp’s astoundly dreadful Broadway production The Times They Are A Changin’ received its death sentence, 22 artists took the stage at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City to deliver renditions of Bob Dylan classics that were every bit as beautiful and transcendent as Tharp’s were flat and hollow. The event, organized by Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf, was a benefit concert for the children’s charity Music For Youth, which provides musical education for inner city youth.
Unlike most multiple-artist shows, the set time between acts was mere seconds meaning the show never lost any momentum. Former Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould kicked off the evening with a tender acoustic take on “If Not For You” from 1970’s New Morning, joking that he first heard the song when it was covered by Olivia Newton-John. Former Dylan sideman Al Kooper came on soon after with his group the Funk Faculty and played the organ on a faithful cover of “It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” “This was recorded 11 blocks from here,” Kooper said. “I was lucky enough to play on the original recording.”
Comedian Sandra Bernhard preceded her highly abbreviated rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” with a hilarious story about the time she threw out all of her brother’s Bob Dylan records because she thought they were turning him into a drug addict. Other highpoints included Allen Touissant’s soulful piano on “Mama You Been On My Mind,” Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s “Positively Fourth Street” (which almost managed to out-bitter the original), Warren Haynes doing an Allman-style take on “I Shall Be Released,” Rosanne Cash’s haunting “License To Kil” and Ryan Adams doing a fierce medley of “Isis” and Love Sick” that would have made Dylan (and The White Stripes) proud.
Minutes after Phil Lesh croaked his way through a disastrous “Thunder On The Mountain,” Philly hip-hoppers the Roots came onstage and delivered what was far and away the greatest performance of the night. Stripped down to a three-piece on guitar, drums and tuba, they performed a version of “Masters of War” that’s sure to go down as one of the most brilliantly unique Dylan covers of all time. Beginning the song to the tune of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they morphed the melody into a New Orleans-style romp before wrapping it up with a psycedelic Jimi Hendrix guitar flourish. The 43-year-old lyrics — about the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex — have rarely sounded as searing or timely.
Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine came out towards the end and did a heartfelt “Dark Eyes” from 1985’s much maligned Empire Burlesque. Beforehand, Smith reminisced about dueting with Dylan on that very song a decade ago. “Sharing a microphone with him was one of the happiest experiences of my life,” she said. The tremendous evening wrapped up with Smith and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing a duet of “Knockin’ On Heavens Door.” Hopefully, Twyla was somewhere in the audience taking notes.