Columbia Records fetes Dylan at Garden

“He not busy bein’ born is busy dyin’ ” was the theme of the Columbia Records’ tribute to Bob Dylan Friday night in Madison Square Garden where a mixed bag of rock’s who’s who gathered to pay homage. Well-oiled, three-hour show ran the gamut of Dylan’s 30 years with the label, and like his music, had its share of political controversy.

In her first live performance since shredding a snapshot of the pontiff on “Saturday Night Live,” Sinead O’Connor was met by a chorus of boos as she took the stage. Her voice cracking with emotion over the detractors, she dropped Dylan’s “I Believe In You” for a verse of the same tune she sang on “SNL,” Bob Marley’s anti-prejudice anthem “War.” She left the stage in angry tears.

Over 30 other artists tackled Dylan standards; notably Richie Haven’s soulful version of “Just Like a Woman,” Stevie Wonder’s gospel-like “Blowin’ in the Wind ,” and Eric Clapton’s rocking “Don’t Think Twice.”

Bandleader G.E. Smith ran the unwieldy show with brutal efficiency. Aired live on pay-per-view, show’s promoters Radio Vision Intl. have sold it in 68 territories. The MSG’s 18,200 seats went for $ 35 to $ 80, with scalpers nailing up to 10 times that outside.

When Dylan finally took center stage, the 51-year-old wordsmith whined and growled through “Harlequin” and a plaintive “It’s Alright, Ma.” George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, Neil Young and Eric Clapton joined him for “Takes a Lot to Laugh” with its ironic chorus “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” pleasing the mostly graying SRO crowd. Entire lineup returned for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which provided the odd sight of Johnny Cash, Sophie B. Hawkins and Lou Reed singing harmony Night ended with Dylan crooning an elegiac solo version of “Girl From the North Country.”

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