Sun SpinTim O'Brien Plays Dylan


It takes a serious pair of brass cobbles to cut a whole album of Bob Dylan songs. A number of brave souls have tried, right from the beginning of his career in fact, with solid efforts from Joan Baez and The Hollies surfacing before the '60s were out. But as his legend (and catalog) has grown over the years it becomes increasingly daunting to tackle the work of this undeniable giant. Tougher still is handling the tunes in a way that makes them one's own, at least to some degree. Bob's possession over his material is nigh mythological, so it's no easy thing to imprint one's stamp on something that actively resists outsider manipulation. Many try their hand at Dylan and even the best efforts sound like little more than gifted karaoke. Which makes truly successful Dylan re-imaginings all the more impressive.

In 1996, bluegrass/acoustic music stalwart Tim O'Brien cherry picked a baker's dozen of Dylan numbers on the resonantly satisfying Red On Blonde. The title is an obvious play on Dylan's legendary Blonde On Blonde altered by the carrot topped musician's handling. O'Brien's mandolin, fiddle, bouzouki and tender, right-in-the-pocket vocals are joined by The O'Boys, perhaps O'Brien's finest post-Hot Rize backing band consisting of Mark Schatz (bass, banjo, harmony vocals) and Scott Nygaard (guitar). The trio is deftly bolstered by the wicked bluegrass banjo of Charlie Cushman, the guitar pyrotechnics of Jerry Douglas, the graceful accordion of Steve Cohn and a small choir of friends and family. What differentiates this set from the pack is the total balance of all elements – a song selection that crosses his whole career to that point, the variety and arrangement of instruments and voices, the pacing and sequencing of the album.

O'Brien approaches these songs with a fantastic mixture of awe and personal gusto that keeps him from being cowed by Dylan's legacy. He digs deep for album cuts like New Morning's "Father of Night" and Slow Train Coming's "Man Gave Names To All The Animals," but also doesn't flinch at well trod (and adored) classics like "Maggie's Farm" and "Tombstone Blues." Every number explodes with life, engaged with the passion of fans and the skill of total professionals. Perhaps most striking is the mandolin and ham bone (courtesy of Schatz) duet take on "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which takes the worried mood to a back porch jam session, reinvigorating things with something fresh, as they do throughout the album. The jumpers like "Everything Is Broken" move with a jitter worthy of Zimmy, and the quiet stuff like "Forever Young" and "Farewell Angelina" just ache so sweetly.

It's a pity that O'Brien never got around to the Volume Two hinted at in his colorful, insightful liner notes. As interpreters of The Master go, O'Brien is high in the rankings, understanding the pleasure and pain of loving Dylan and the infectious way his music angries up the blood and haunts one long after the needle rises from the groove.

[Published on: 6/14/09]

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