various artists,
Blues on Blonde on Blonde
(Telarc, 2003)

This is one of those albums that I wanted to like a whole lot better than I did. I love Dylan, I love the blues and, since many of the songs on Dylan's classic 1966 album are blues, it seemed a natural when Telarc announced the release of a tribute to Blonde on Blonde, with each song reinterpreted by blues artists. Unfortunately, the final result is disappointing.

Brian Stoltz starts things off blandly with a traditional "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," from which the self-indulgent, faux hick-spoken introduction should've been deleted. "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Home" is an ordeal to listen to. Personally, I find Sue Foley's croaky voice unappealing, seemingly incapable of sustain and so flawed in intonation that blue notes become sour notes. "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" boasts some sweet guitar licks, but the vocal sounds as though Walter Trout is just going through the motions.

Anders Osborne's "Visions of Johanna" shows that there are songs that should not be covered. It reminds me of some of the Byrds' weaker Dylan covers, and bassist Tommy Shannon is in love with a riff he uses over and over again until it becomes like an annoying faucet drip. There's an attempt to vary things in this 8:47 track by using vocal harmonies at the end, but the result is dismal. "Pledging My Time" is another down and dirty blues track, but again receives just a standard performance by Duke Robillard.

Fortunately things brighten up with the next few tracks. Eric Bibb's ballad version of "Just Like a Woman" provides the first real emotion of the album, and Joe Louis Walker rocks the house with "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again." It's a powerhouse performance that shows thought and effort, and seems much shorter than its 8:52 length. Sean Costello keeps things looking up with a straight-ahead rock version of "Obviously 5 Believers," one of Dylan's lesser known songs from Blonde on Blonde, which helps immensely, since on so many of these songs Dylan's performance has become iconic, so that we find it impossible to hear anyone else doing it.

Clarence Bucaro hits pay dirt by turning "One of Us Must Know" on its head, performing it as a slow, Bessie Smith-style blues, complete with clarinet. It's not an unqualified success, but it makes for damned interesting listening. I usually like Deborah Coleman's performances, but her take on "Temporary Like Achilles" seems predictable and dull. Cyril Neville's "I Want You" is anything but dull, turning the song funky and downhome, and it works pretty well. The album ends with C.J. Chenier's accordion and growly voice making hay out of "Abolutely Sweet Marie," a fine and jumping version.

Although the album has a few triumphs, primarily the tracks that stray the farthest from the originals, the whole is a lot less than the sum of the original Blonde on Blonde. Tribute albums often seem more like attempts to cash in on a classic than to truly revisit and reinvent classic music, and when you think about what Dylan himself does constantly to keep his older songs alive and vital, most of these efforts look all the weaker. If a performer can't put a new spin on an old song, why bother in the first place? Just a few are able to do it here, but if you're like me, your first reaction after hearing this will not be to play it again, but to get the real thing in the player ASAP.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 19 July 2003

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