A remarkable retrospective of Bob Dylan's songwriting career is released next week - but only one of the 75 tracks is sung by Dylan himself. Conrad Cox delves deeper.
Bob Dylan has always been a champion of ‘‘the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones, an’ worse” if we’re to believe the legendary lyric from Chimes Of Freedom.
So it’s apt that the 1964 song should lend its title to a remarkable release honouring 50 years of Amnesty International: no fewer than 75 Dylan songs reworked and revised by an eclectic cast.
Among the four CDs that make up Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan are misfits (Ke$ha), punks (Rise Against), outsiders (Ximena Sariñana), and radicals (K’naan).
There are old stagers (Joan Baez), legends (Pete Seeger), rockers (Queens Of The Stone Age), wannabes (Glee’s Darren Criss), good ol’ country boys (Steve Earle) and jazz divas (Diana Krall).
At the age of 19, Miley Cyrus is the youngest performer here, with Seeger, now 92, at the other end of the scale, delivering a highly appropriate Forever Young, one of the setlist highlights.
Almost every track is being released for the first time, with 70 songs recorded especially for the project, which raises support for Amnesty’s fight against censorship and attacks on free speech, whether involving artists, writers, musicians, political activists or bloggers.
And here’s a sobering thought. Not all the artists are still with us. The setlist kicks off with the late Johnny Cash’s cover of One Too Many Mornings, studio trickery adding backing by the indie folkie Avett Brothers.
Elsewhere on Disc One, Rise Against’s razor-sharp Ballad Of Hollis Brown is contemporary post-punk at its best, while Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello dusts down his Nightwatchman overalls for a gritty Blind Willie McTell.
While there may be plenty of coffee shop strums dotted throughout the set, Dylan still rocks.
Bettye LaVette’s smoky blues voice smoulders, eventually setting Most Of The Time alight. In contrast Diana Krall brings late-night jazz sophistication and a warm vocal embrace to Simple Twist Of Fate.
Disc One highlights inevitably include Patti Smith’s Drifter’s Escape – anything she does is worth the price of the ticket on its own – and Charlie Winston’s predictable, but powerful, This Wheel’s On Fire.
Some of the big names fail to sparkle, however. Sting’s stylised vocal inflections irritate in Girl From The North Country and Pete Townshend’s Corinna, Corinna is by the numbers (or should that be High Numbers, perhaps?)
Best is Boots Of Spanish Leather, here set to the sonic swoon of Mikel Jollett, better known as frontman of The Airborne Toxic Event. It’s utterly gorgeous and one of the standout tracks of the entire setlist.
Opening Disc Two, Queens Of the Stone Age resort to rootsy boogie for an effective Outlaw Blues, while Lenny Kravitz ditches his trademark Hendrix guitar for brassy New Orleans horns on Rainy Day Women No 12 & 35.
Both the ubiquitous Adele and soulful Angelique Kidjo suffuse Make You Feel My Love and Lay Lady Lay respectively with vocal warmth and there’s a musically naive Mr Tambourine Man from Jack’s Mannequin, the part-time project headed by Something Corporate’s Andrew McMahon.
And here’s a surprise. The Nashville skyline she surveys may be very different from the one Dylan used to know but teenager Miley Cyrus’ You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go isn’t embarrassed to find itself in such credible company.
The Disc Two highlight, however, is a remarkable collaboration between alternative. country legend Steve Earle and classical crossover violinist Lucia Micarelli on One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below).
Earle’s gruff vocal and grumbly guitar strikes up an unlikely union with Micarelli’s melodic soar, and the results are such that they’ll surely repeat the experiment before too long. It could be another Plant and Krauss in the making.
Pairing Somalian hip-hop poet and rapper K’naan with Dylan’s With God On Our Side would seem a mis-match on paper but it works surprisingly well at the opening of Disc Three.
Credible and contemporary, it’s testament to the strength of the writing that the song can be so radically revised.
Crowded House frontman Neil Finn dresses She Belongs To Me in more familiar jangly pop courtesy of his Pajama Club spin-off project, Bryan Ferry adds suave style to Bob Dylan’s Dream (and not just by walking through the studio door), and Flogging Molly deliver a rip-roaring, rabble-rousing Celtic take on The Times They Are A-Changin’.