Pulling Dylan Out by the Roots


We’d been sleepwalking through the big-shot Bob Dylan tribute hoedown for roughly an hour and a half, clapping politely-to-semi-enthusiastically as Joan Osborne looked serene, Bob Mould looked dapper, Warren Haynes looked like a roadie, Lee Renaldo looked awkwardly triumphant, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah looked hopelessly out of place, Phil Lesh looked helpless. Nobody fantastic, nobody terrible. (‘Cept Phil, of course.) A mild Starbucks tribute to— oh, let’s put it mildly—a not particularly Starbucks kinda dude. And then, oh my God, “Masters of War,” performed by the Roots, consisting in this iteration of Questlove on drums, Captain Kirk on guitar and vocals (no Black Thought this eve), some dude on tuba, and the entire Thursday-night Lincoln Center crowd on jaws-dropped-to-floor percussion. What the fuck.

The first two verses were mashed up with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “And you turn and run farther/When the fast bullets fly” thus replacing “And the land of the free/And the home of the brave,” Captain Kirk bellowing faux-theatrically and quite impressively. (Mistook him for old Roots pal Cody Chesnutt at first, but his voice is much wobblier.) Then the actual “Masters of War” melody started, the tuba largely inaudible, and by the time the soundman cranked it up Questlove was pounding on his kit so angrily it was inaudible again. Before each verse’s leering one-chord dirge finally broke, Quest and Kirk held the pause for 10 to 15 seconds, almost smirking at each other, before bashing through the four chords propping up the last two lines—”You ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins,” etc. Meanwhile, they kept violently breaking into other songs. The tuba guy hyperventilated through “Taps.” Captain Kirk shredded through what we all slowly realized (to our absolute delight) was “You Drop a Bomb on Me.” And as a finale, “Machine Gun,” Quest bashing the snare in bullet time while Kirk unleashed a vicious solo obliterating a fine Warren Hayes/some roadie effort not 15 minutes ago. Just a shocking, volatile, incredible 10 minutes of carnage. “Masters of War” has always seemed to me more like a possibly futile prayer than an inevitable blood oath, the warmonger’s funeral described in some hypothetical future Bob can only hope will come soon. The Roots just killed it.

Not that the preceding 90 minutes of Starbucks fare was so terrible. The gala Music for Youth benefit began with an always welcome Mould in acoustic troubadour mode, belting out “If Not for You” based on what he admitted was the Olivia Newton-John version. Ms. Osborne gave late Dylan’s sweetest and sappiest tune, “To Make You Feel My Love,” the smooth-jazz sweet and sappy treatment it deserved, and returned a while later to help Haynes rip through “I Shall Be Released.” (I don’t mean to harp on this, but there was a roadie who not only looked exactly like him but also happened to be wearing the exact same outfit. Like he’d gone to a Halloween party dressed as Warren Haynes and spent three weeks preparing. Just bewildering.) Medeski, Martin & Wood (plus an extra Wood on percussion) traipsed through a delicate and winsome “Buckets of Rain.” Sandra Bernhard (!?) barreled through a long I-talked-to-Bob-once monologue and howled a couple choruses of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Jazz dude Jamie Saft, resplendent in a full-blown ZZ Top beard, led his trio through “Ballad of a Thin Man,” his icicle-sharp upper-register piano stabs replicating Bob’s voice actually better than most of the singers. Lee Renaldo and some bros (great organ work by some guy in a hoodie) lumbering through “Positively 4th Street,” Lee strumming his shrill, trebly guitar and raising his fists in triumph periodically and crowing about “the election vote.”

Only an ill-advised Natalie Merchant and Philip Glass duo (dourly trudging through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) and a completely lost Phil Lesh (thwacking his six-string bass and power-mumbling through “Thunder on the Mountain”) truly sullied Bob’s name, and the crowd loved the latter. But not as much as they loved the Roots, and for profoundly good reason. Messing with Dylan is clearly a perilous artistic proposition, as anyone who suffered through a buncha clowns jumping on trampolines during Twyla Tharp’s much derided and soon-to-be-canceled The Times They Are A-Changin’ can attest. Nobody overshot that badly here—everyone underplayed except the Roots and, uh, Ryan Adams, whose dragged his beery backing band through half of “Isis,” then suddenly detoured into “Love Sick,” and then back five minutes later for the second half of “Isis,” a move I suspect was impromptu or at least not formally announced, given that a stagehand, clearly visible in the wings, spent the last several minutes of the affair furiously making neck-slashing motions as Ryan and his mates obliviously thrashed on. (Lotta verses in “Isis,” as it turns out.) Oh, Ryan. So rebellious. The crew clearly would’ve enjoyed removing him from the stage via bulldozer.

Yes, but a Dylan tribute with no bird-flipping audacity just wouldn’t have made any sense. Cat Power, Patti Smith, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott took turns capably wrapping it all up, but the necessary and glorious damage had been done. As the never ending parade of Dylan homage marches onward—Modern Times‘ best-of-2006 critical accolades are next—let us be reminded why we deify him so: He inspires stuff like the Roots’ incredible rendition of “Masters of War,” a version nothing like him and exactly like him, finishing the fight he started and starting 10,000 new ones. We shall be released.