There’s a handsome backstory to Friday night’s concert “The Town Hall and T Bone Burnett Present a Tribute to Bob Dylan” — produced in partnership with the Bob Dylan Center — that went beyond present-day artists merely doing a set of covers.
Dylan. New York City’s Town Hall. The two go hand-in-hand like whiskey and soda. In 1963, when the bourgeoning poet-folkie could no longer be confined by Greenwich Village’s coffee houses, his shrewd then-manager Albert Grossman chose the civic hall built by the League for Political Education to mark Dylan’s major league debut and unite his social consciousness with commerce for the first (but not the last) time.
Dylan and T Bone Burnett also go hand-in-hand like whiskey and pretty-much-anything. Not only did Dylan pluck Burnett to be a guitarist on his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of the late 1970s, Burnett recently produced Dylan’s one-off recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” for Burnett’s Ionic Original acetate-format project with an auction price of nearly $1.8M. (Burnett is also linked to Town Hall with his smart co-production of 2013’s “Another Day, Another Time at the Hall”) in celebration of the Coen Brothers’ cinematic ’60s folk love letter “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
With so many ties-that-bind, in celebration of the Town Hall’s Centennial and Dylan’s first appearance there, Burnett’s curated show promised to be a wizened, witty treat with the early inclusion of Sara Bareilles, Joe Henry, Margaret Glaspy, Joy Harjo, the McCrary Sisters, Mumu Fresh, Punch Brothers, Lizz Wright and the “Pocket Orchestra” of guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage.
Not only did Burnett and company never disappoint, the event transcended its holy “tribute” tag with its feeling of forward motion, its testimony as a living document, and even fun. Yes, its artists played tunes from Dylan’s 1963 Town Hall debut, like Bareilles’ warmly winsome take on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (with its heavenly harmony assist from Glaspy), but went far beyond being any sort of stoic time capsule with latter-day Dylan moments such as “Every Grain of Sand” (from “Shot of Love”) sung with shushed soulfulness by jazz-blues vocalist Lizz Wright.
A large part of that success came from alt-country singing-songwriting veteran Joe Henry, who not only made several Dylan songs his own, whether alone, in a smoldering “Gotta Serve Somebody” with his burnt caramelly vocal tones, or in harmony with Glaspy, one of the evening’s MVPs, on “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”). He also served as the event’s host, with his dedicated sense of erudition. Each bright and complimentary introduction given by Henry was as reverential and cagey as the artists and their Dylan covers and should go down in the Unveiling Hall of Fame.
if we’re talking veneration and foxiness we must move to Margaret Glaspy, the NYC-based singer-songwriter (also married to Julian Lage) whose takes on Dylan tracks such as “Mississippi” – the jazzy manner in which she rolled phrases such as “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime / Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme” – were lustful and cutting. What aided Glaspy’s vocal tones in leaping through the cluster-fray of Dylan’s downbeat poetics was the tangling, twinkling interplay of guitarists Lage and Frisell. Simultaneously spare and lush, theirs was an electric guitar-clucked, plucked and strummed field of starshine through which Glaspy and others lolled.
The night’s other backing ensemble, the progressive bluegrass Punch Brothers, brought crackling, funky rootsy vibes to every moment they impacted, including their own vocal rumination on “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” When Chris Thile wasn’t providing high harmony vocals and inspired leads, he was riffing on his mandolin with rapid-fire licks in tight tandem with banjoist Noam Pikelny.
When it came to a unique pairing of plucked, strummed strings and voice, having angular guitarist (and surprise guest) Marc Ribot join forces with Afro-Indigenous hip-hop vocalist Mumu Fresh was an inspired pairing. The pair tackled “All Along the Watchtower” with each artist out-nuancing and out-blues-ing the other. These two found grooves, tics, space and soul in Dylan’s timeworn classic that neither the songwriter or its most famous cover singer, Jimi Hendrix, had ever imagined. As far as innovation and passionate uses of harmony went, Nashville’s gospel-based McCrary Sisters crafted a boldly emotive three-way-street of craggy yet lushly intertwined divinity on “What Good Am I?,” backed by the clucking, clanging strings of the Punch Brothers and the Frisell/Lage’s Pocket Orchestra.
A piano-tickling Sara Bareilles – the evening’s most anticipated performer – took on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as a slow and pensive paean to remorse with Punch Bros’ Paul Kowert bowed stand-up bass as a solo. But the event’s true highlight came in its surprise guest, actor Oscar Isaac.
Now known for megawatt roles in major studio films such as “Dune” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” back in 2013 he was the lead in the aforementioned “Inside Llewyn Davis” as its titular folkie singer-songwriter. Acknowledging that film and his 2013 Town Hall event’s singing, Isaac looked behind him – at the stage’s center piece of a young Dylan making his Town Hall debut in 1963 – and joked, “I’m always in this guy’s shadow.” With that, the impressively bearded Isaac went into a crisp, curt solo rendition of the politicized “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” before being joined by the Punch Brothers and Chris Thile’s harmony vocals for a bruised and lovely version of “Tangled Up in Blue” – easily winning the night’s loudest applause. Not long after that, vocalists Isaac and Lizz Wright joined forces on a gently flirty “Not Dark Yet,” a track celebrating its own historical marker as “Time Out of Mind,” the album from whence it came, was released exactly 25 years ago Friday.
For all of its host’s solemnity and the cast’s smart humility and inventive honorarium, it was a delicious treat to close out the night with a mass singalong of Dylan’s raucous jangler, “Rainy Day Way Women #12 and #35,” complete with its introductory “everybody must get stoned” bit sung gruffy and goofily by the event’s firestarter, Burnett. Followed up by each of the night’s artists occasionally making up their own Dylan-y verses (Isaac’s included real-life Dylan events like going electric and riding a motorcycle), the gleeful, campfire-like cover sent the Town Hall crowd off into the cool windy breezes of New York on a joyful, goofy note and reminded all that, like Shakespeare, this 20th Century Bard’s humor is as poetic and lyrical as his starkest drama, and always worth celebrating.