Todd Haynes felt that he needed a half-dozen actors to properly portray Bob Dylan in the biopic “I’m Not There,” an effort, it would seem, to surround the rock legend’s various personae rather than trying to pin them down for posterity. The producers of the show staged Wednesday to fete the soundtrack’s release took a similar tack, creating an event that split the difference between charmingly shambling and aggravatingly disjointed.
While the majority of the evening’s two dozen or so performers reprised their contributions to the movie’s soundtrack, few of the disc’s bigger names dropped in — a fact that no doubt contributed to the program’s relatively sparse attendance.
But the lack of star power proved more a boon than a hindrance, keeping aud members focused on the songs, not the singers.
Things started off promisingly, with desert-rock vets Calexico serving as house band for a series of stellar singers — notably Mark Lanegan, whose sepulchral tone wafted muskily over “Man in the Long Black Coat,” and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.
The latter singer strolled out, hands in his hoodie pockets, like a man ready for a dress rehearsal run-through of “Goin’ to Acapulco,” then proceeded to use his preternaturally eerie tenor to cut through the tune — and audience members’ synapses — with samurai-like precision and intensity.
James captured lightning in a bottle a second time when he and his regular band returned for a low-slung, effortlessly sexy “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” a performance that — along with last-minute addition Tift Merritt’s straightforward, impassioned reading of “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall — ranked as the program’s most gripping.
Neither James nor Merritt called undue attention to themselves, which made their offerings all the more palatable — especially in comparison to the passel of participants who leaned heavily on shtick.
John Doe, on the other hand, elicited eye-rolling with his faux-Pentecostal testifying on an unctuous version of “Pressing On,” while Dan Hicks’ attempt to recast “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as an R. Crumb comic was painful in its creakiness.
Ian Ball and Olly Peacock of Gomez found some tasty fruit after climbing out on a limb to harvest a slippery, jazzy “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” — as did Aussie punk icon Chris Bailey, who put a beery, sneery spin on the already ornery “Maggie’s Farm.”
Interludes like those made up for often muddled set changes that found bands frantically searching for instruments and musicians — not to mention a sound mix that sometimes threatened to dissolve into sonic chaos — because in those moments, Dylan’s anarchic, button-pushing spirit was clearly in the house.