On October 16, 1992, a stunning collection of rock luminaries gathered at Madison Square Garden to fete Bob Dylan on the 30th anniversary of his first album. Coming as it did at a particularly fallow period of Dylan’s career, it felt at the time like a retirement party. Of course, Bob flipped that script with some of the best music of his career in subsequent years and is still rolling strong.
Now released as a deluxe edition on two CD’s and for the first time on DVD and Blu-Ray, Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration comes loaded with wonderful performances from artists, many of whom have passed away since that night, anxious to repay their debt to Dylan for the way that he blew up the boundaries of what popular music could encompass. There is not a clunker in the bunch, but here are the ten finest efforts from that evening.
10. “What Was It You Wanted” by Willie Nelson: Nelson’s deadpan, off-kilter phrasing fits perfectly with this tale of romantic confusion that Bob recorded on Oh Mercy. Few artists can tap into the idiosyncratic nature of Dylan, but Willie certainly makes that short list.
9. “When The Ship Comes In” by The Clancy Brothers and Robbie O’Connell with special guest Tommy Makem: “Dylan with an Irish accent” is how these folk contemporaries described their performance. They soften Bob’s tale of Biblical comeuppance with their timeless harmonies.
8. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” by George Harrison: It was Harrison’s first live U.S. performance in 18 years, but he is in great voice and nails the sardonic nature of Dylan’s lyrics. George plays an acoustic guitar here, leaving the electric heroics to G.E. Smith and Steve Cropper, who trade off furious licks.
7. “It Ain’t Me Babe” by June Carter Cash & Johnny Cash: This one was a no-brainer, the First Couple of Country doing the he said/she said like so many times before. Dylan sang the song with palpable hurt back on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, but Johnny and June turn it into a joyous declaration of independence.
6. “Just Like A Woman” by Richie Havens: Few interpreters of Dylan’s work have been able to get inside of it and make it their own like Havens. His quick-fingered guitar work on this classic ballad gets the crowd going, but it’s the deep wisdom in his voice that really clinches the deal.
5. “Masters Of War” by Eddie Vedder & Mike McCready: Pearl Jam’s debut album was just a year old when Vedder stepped up to take on Dylan’s most caustic anti-war diatribe. If there were any doubts that he belonged with the best of the best in rock history, this searing vocal performance answered them.
4. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” by The Band: At this point the only original members in the group that fought so many battles with Bob were Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. That’s was enough. Hudson’s accordion practically builds a gondola right on stage, while the mournful harmonies of Helm and Danko capture the homesickness of the lyrics in moving fashion.
3. “Foot Of Pride” by Lou Reed: Instead of going with one of the well-known anthems like so many of the performers here, Reed pulled out this Bootleg Series tongue-twister, significantly upping the degree of difficulty. Needless to say, he rises to the occasion and gives a reckless, ramshackle effort that hits harder than many of the more respectful tributes of that evening.
2. “License To Kill” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Dylan’s version of this Infidels track was a bit of a misfire, which was a shame because the lyrics are prickly and fascinating. Petty rescues it by turning it into the kind of high-stakes ballad that he does best, complete with Mike Campbell’s impassioned soloing in the closing moments.
1. “Girl From The North Country” by Bob Dylan: The honoree showed all of his buddies how it was done with acoustic guitar and harmonica just like the old days. It’s a mesmerizing effort, making it abundantly clear why everyone was there that night in the first place.