The Blood on the Tracks Project

There was an odd mix of hubris and reverence in the air around Merkin Hall, where a slew of acoustic performers gathered to pay homage to Bob Dylan -- or more specifically, celebrate the 30th anniversary of his much-lauded "Blood on the Tracks" album.

With:
Performers: Toshi Reagon, Citizen Cope, Ollabelle, Jeffrey Gaines, Mary Lee Cortes, Joan Osborne, Marc Anthony Thompson, Vernon Reid, Brandon Ross, Jen Chapin, Richard Barone, Jesse Harris, Joel Harrison, Alex DeGrassi, David Spellman, Kieran Tolhurst.

There was an odd mix of hubris and reverence in the air around Merkin Hall, where a slew of acoustic performers gathered to pay homage to Bob Dylan — or more specifically, celebrate the 30th anniversary of his much-lauded “Blood on the Tracks” album. Adoration positively oozed from a passel of speeches about the Bard of Hibbing, all of which touched the usual bases. Hubris, on the other hand, entered the picture whenever a performer chose to “interpret” one of Dylan’s compositions without even paying passing attention to what the man was getting at in the first place.

Jeffrey Gaines, who freely admitted onstage that his Dylan fandom didn’t extend to having heard the album being feted at the gig, displayed that disinterest in a close-to-the-vest “Idiot Wind.” Second vocalist Mary Lee Cortes — a local fixture whose band actually released an album-length cover of “Blood on the Tracks” some years back — brought enough passion to resuscitate the perf, but not everyone had a lifeline.

Citizen Cope, for instance, slurred through a “Simple Twist of Fate” that was more Leon Redbone than Dylan, while Toshi Reagon spiraled into misguided melisma at the end of an otherwise precise “Tangled Up in Blue.” Most egregious of the misinterpretations was Brandon Ross’s take on “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” a wispy Brazilian-flavored rendering that sapped the song of all its tension — the last thing one needs to do to a 10-minute murder ballad.

Not all the reworkings were off the mark. Joan Osborne, for instance, wasn’t remotely faithful to the structure of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” infusing the song with a torch-song slinkiness, but she nevertheless managed to retain the original’s craving. Likewise, Marc Anthony Thompson — aka Chocolate Genius — boiled “Meet Me in the Morning” down to a potent delta blues mash that went down with a nice slow burn.

To stretch a 45-minute piece of music into an evening-long program, producers cheated a bit, augmenting the album’s tunes with “extras.” Translated, that meant several perfs were immediately followed by superfluous instrumental renditions — although David Spellman and Kieran Tolhurst did close the first set with a clever weaving of “Meet Me in the Morning,” “Shelter From the Storm” and themes from “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”

Those few moments of inspiration, however, couldn’t scrub the feeling that “Blood on the Tracks” would’ve been better celebrated by a simple twist of the play button on a good old-fashioned stereo.

The Blood on the Tracks Project

Merkin Hall, New York; 507 seats; $45

Production: Presented by Kaufman Center. Reviewed June 29, 2004.

Cast: Performers: Toshi Reagon, Citizen Cope, Ollabelle, Jeffrey Gaines, Mary Lee Cortes, Joan Osborne, Marc Anthony Thompson, Vernon Reid, Brandon Ross, Jen Chapin, Richard Barone, Jesse Harris, Joel Harrison, Alex DeGrassi, David Spellman, Kieran Tolhurst.

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