It’s hard to imagine anyone could top Friday night’s benefit concert of first-rate artists performing Bob Dylan’s songs. But Dylan himself did it…and he didn’t sing or play a note. He just talked. And he talked. For 35 minutes, Dylan seemed to make up for sometimes not saying one word to the audience during his concerts.
As the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year, honored by the charitable arm of the Recording Academy, Dylan was introduced to the stage at the Los Angeles Convention Center by former president Jimmy Carter, who told the well-dressed crowd of music industry professionals and fans, “There’s no doubt that his words on peace and human rights are much more incisive and much more powerful and much more permanent than those of any president of the United States.”
After a few more words from the former president, Dylan approached the podium. He opened by saying he needed “to thank some people tonight.” Then he was off to the races.
Dylan said he’s “eternally grateful” to the talent scout who long-ago signed him to Columbia Records when he was a nobody with a “non-commercial” sound. He thanked his first music publisher. He praised Peter, Paul and Mary for taking “Blowin’ in the Wind” and turning it into a hit. Dylan said it wasn’t the way he would have done it — he said “they straightened it out.” Since then, he noted, “hundreds of people have recorded it,” which he doesn’t think would have happened if it weren’t for that folk trio.
Dylan said he wasn’t a pop songwriter but the Byrds, the Turtles and Sonny and Cher turned some of his songs into top-10 pop hits. He described their versions of his songs as commercials for his songwriting, and noted that now, 50 years later, his songs are actually being used for commercials, such as last year’s Chrysler commercial during the Super Bowl.
Those pop versions of his songs were fine, Dylan said, but when Nina Simone covered his songs, including “Just Like a Woman” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “it validated everything I was about.”
Dylan also mentioned Jimi Hendrix, saying he wished the late guitarist was still alive so he could thank him because he took “some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and turned them into classics,” including “All Along the Watchtower.” Kudos also went out to Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Buck Owens and others for being important to Dylan along the way.
Then Dylan slapped down his critics who have been giving him “a hard time since Day One,” pointing out that “critics say I can’t sing. I croak.” That’s when Dylan asked why he gets “special treatment” when Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Dr. John should be blasted by critics, too. It was hard to tell if Dylan was trying to be funny or if he really was ragging on those other performers.
Finally, Dylan told how the MusiCares charity — which was created to help musicians in need of financial or medical help — came to the end of a rockabilly one-hit wonder he knew and respected named Billy Lee Riley, who died of cancer in 2009. Dylan said MusiCares paid for Riley’s doctor bills and mortgage and gave him spending money to make him comfortable until the end. And Dylan said, “Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.”
Dylan himself didn’t perform, but many, many others did: there were 17 live performances in all, including Alanis Morissette doing “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Jack White singing “One More Cup of Coffee” and Norah Jones crooning “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” The evening wrapped up with Neil Young performing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Here’s the list of Bob Dylan songs that were performed live on stage at Friday’s MusiCares benefit concert:
Beck – “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”
Aaron Neville – “Shooting Star”
Alanis Morissette – “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Los Lobos – “On a Night Like This”
Willie Nelson – “Senor”
Jackson Browne – “Blind Willie McTell”
John Mellencamp – “Highway 61 Revisited”
Jack White – “One More Cup of Coffee”
Tom Jones – “What Good Am I”
Norah Jones – “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”
Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks – “Million Miles”
John Doe – “Pressing On”
Crosby, Stills and Nash – “Girl From the North Country”
Bonnie Raitt – “Standing in the Doorway”
Sheryl Crow – “Boots of Spanish Leather”
Bruce Springsteen with Tom Morello – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
Neil Young – “Blowin’ in the Wind”
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