Review special written by Eric Greene.
Sure the audience included hotshots like Lady Gaga walking arm in arm with Tony Bennett, movie star Jeff Bridges, producer Brian Grazer, record industry giant T-Bone Burnett, even the 39th President of the United States Jimmy Carter.
But the hottest-shot of the night at the star-studded Musicares “Person of the Year Tribute to Bob Dylan” last Friday was the man of the hour himself. Hailed as America’s greatest songwriter, the voice of his generation, the poet laureate of Rock n’ Roll, and about a dozen other labels which he rejects, Dylan gave a dazzling acceptance speech that was at turns humble and defiant, funny and honest, erudite and plain-spoken. There are not many people who could have the top musicians in the country serve as their warm up act, but that’s exactly what happened as some of music’s most celebrated artists performed a 2 and a half hour concert of classics form Dylan’s 50-year career and raised a record-setting over 7 million dollars for the Musicares foundation that helps artists in times of financial, medial and personal need (hyperlink to: http://www.grammy.org/
Soon to win Album of the Year at Sunday’s Grammy awards, Beck began the party with a bang--performing an amped-up version of Dylan’s blues rocker “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” He was followed by over a dozen performances from various genres including Aaron Neville’s lovely rendering of “Shooting Star”, Los Lobos buoyant bilingual version of “On a Night Like This”, Willie Nelson lending a Tex-Mex vibe to “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” Jackson Browne conveying both the mystery and the immediacy of the quiet epic “Blind Willie McTell,” Jack White’s slicing guitar and urgent vocals on “One More Cup of Coffee,” Tom Jones’ booming baritone powering the soul searching of “What Good Am I?,” punk-rocker John Doe testifying in the gospel powerhouse “Pressing On,” the angelic voices of Crosby, Stills Nash and Young wistfully singing of the “Girl from the North Country,” Susan Tedeschi & Dereck Trucks bringing a honkey-tonk spiritedness to “Million Miles” so vivid you could practically feel the sawdust under your feet, Sheryl Crow conveying the vulnerability of jilted love in “Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather” and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello (who have become the dynamic duo of rock n’ roll over their past several years of gut-wrenching appearances together) marrying singing that looked inward with guitar that soared skyward on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” While, it’s hard to stand out in a line-up that strong (which also included Alanis Morissette, Garth Brooks, Norah Jones and Neil Young), the musical highlights were Bonnie Raitt’s heartfelt torch-song rendition of 1997’s “Standing in the Doorway” and John Mellancamp, channeling Tom Waits and accompanied only on piano, delivering a slow, bluesy, raspy version of “Highway 61 Revisited,” written over three decades earlier. (Given Dylan’s pioneering work melding sophisticated rhymes with political relevance, however, it was a disappointment not to see rap represented, especially given the admiration of Dylan expressed by artists like Wyclef Jean and Will I Am. You could even detect the faintest hint of hip-hop rhythm—and a hell of a lot of hip-hop attitude—when Dylan recited his seminal lines “Come gather 'round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you'll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / Then you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone / For the times they are a-changing" in his acceptance speech). Intermixed with the performances were video testimonials from friends like Martin Scorsese, Josh Brolin who praised Dylan’s remarkable attentiveness, perceptiveness and sensitivity and Jeff Bridges who summed up the feeling of just about everyone in the room when he pointed out that we are all “honored to be alive during the time” that Dylan is alive and making music.
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While the concert was probably the best night of music anyone is likely to witness all year, by far the night’s main event was its biggest surprise. The camera-shy Dylan is famous for saying little, or even nothing, at events where he has been awarded honors like the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the Kennedy Center Honor. So no one could have expected that the man himself would take the stage and deliver a nearly 40-minute oration that kept the audience of over 3000 riveted in their seats until midnight. In what is probably the longest public address since his Bar Mitzvah, Dylan thanked those who helped him get his start like talent scout John Hammond who signed him to Columbia Records and early champions of his music like Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix and the Staples Singers. Contradicting the praise that his writing was “unprecedented,” Dylan explained that listening to folk songs gave him the code for good songwriting and drew cheers as he demonstrated several examples of the lyrical lineage between earlier songs and his own beloved compositions, insisting that “all these songs are connected. Don't be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. … I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly…Maybe hard to pin down, but so what?” Speaking in lively cadences that recalled the phrasing and intensity that have made his singing so impactful, Dylan praised his inspirations as “radical artists that shook the very essence of humanity. Revolution in style and scope. Heavy shape and color. Radical to the bone. Songs that cut you to the bone. Renegades in all degrees, doing songs that would never decay, and still resound to this day.”
Dylan earned big laughs by teasing his critics, contrasting commercial “novelty songs that weren’t saying anything serious” with his own edgier songs that “were on the fringes then, and…on the fringes now.” He got one of the biggest cheers of the night from the crowd full of entertainment industry elite when he responded to tired criticisms of his singing voice by quoting the great soul singer Sam Cooke “voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth." Certain it is that for all of us lucky enough to be in that room, on that night, we were hearing one of greatest truth-tellers of our time bringing it all back home.
For a transcript of the Bob Dylan 2015 Musicares Address go to: http://www.latimes.com/