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It was a well-known fact that Bob Dylan was not going to perform at the MusiCares event honoring him for, in President Jimmy Carter‘s words, a “lifetime dedication to human rights.” Still, no one expected him to give one of the greatest acceptance speeches in the 25 years of the event.
It almost didn’t matter that Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp sang some of the best songs written in the 20th century or that a humbled former president was on hand to present the award. For nearly 40 minutes, Dylan “performed” in a way few have ever seen, reading a speech written in short declarative sentences akin to those in his autobiography, Chronicles. It was filled with wit and criticism, honest assessments of his artistry and stinging jabs at his critics.
He also got in a few good words about the rockabilly pioneer and his friend Billy Lee Riley, the singer behind “Red Hot” and “Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll” who utilized MusiCares in the years prior to his death in 2009.
Dylan, who often shies away from speaking during his concerts, took the stage at the Los Angeles Convention Center late Friday night after President Carter introduced him with praise that his words “are more precise… and permanent than anything said by a president of the United States.”
Onstage, Dylan was in the mood to pay homage. “Right from the start, my songs were divisive,” he said, going on to name those who supported him early on: the songwriter Doc Pomus, label owner Sam Philips, Buck Owens and Kris Kristofferson. He also mentioned those who’d been in the opposite corner:Ahmet Ertegun, Leiber and Stoller, Merle Haggard and “the critics” who fault his singing style but, according to Dylan, give a pass to Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and Dr. John.
For the most part, Dylan was full of gratitude. He started by saluting the man who signed him to Columbia Records, John Hammond, and his first representatives in publishing, Lou Levy and Artie Mogull. He also expressed appreciation for the artists who have covered his songs, starting with the popular – Peter, Paul & Mary; the Turtles; the Byrds and Sonny and Cher – and moving to the iconoclasts who he greatly admired, including Nina Simone, the Staple Singers, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez.
“The Staple Singers were one of my favorite groups of all time,” he said. “They were the type of artists I wanted to record my songs. Nina Simone was an unchanging artist who validated, for me, everything I was working toward. Hendrix took small songs of mine into the stratosphere.”
Dylan traced the roots of some of his better-known songs to numerous traditional folk songs, noting that his work blossomed from his spending so much time playing the traditional works. “John Henry” begat “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” led to “Highway 61 Revisited.” “Roll the Cotton Down” birthed “Maggie’s Farm.” “The Times They Are A Changin'” is an extension of what Dylan referred as the “come all ye” songs such as “Floyd Collins.” From “Deep Elm Blues,” a traditional song recorded by blues artists in the 1930s, sprang “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“There’s nothing secret about it,” Dylan said.
Mostly, Dylan wanted to make a singular point about music and great songwriting, whether he was referencing the work of gospel legends the Blackwood Brothers, folk legend Roscoe Holcomb or bluesman Charley Patton. “Voices are not to measured by how pretty they are,” Dylan said, quoting Sam Cooke. “They’re to be measured by whether they’re telling the truth.”
Then Dylan passed the torch to Beck, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, whom he had recruited to interpret specifically chosen songs. A dozen of the performers had a head start, having already released versions of the song they performed on Friday night. Two of the covers, Willie Nelson‘s “Senor” and John Doe‘s “Press On,” appeared in the film I’m Not There; the White Stripes covered “One More Cup of Coffee” on their debut album; Crosby, Stills & Nash performed “Girl From North Country” on their 2012 tour and Young played “Blowin’ in the Wind” regularly on tours in 1991 and 2014.
With a house band led by bassist-producer Don Was that included pedal steel player Greg Leisz, guitarist Buddy Miller, keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Kenny Aronoff, the night was packed with stellar, well-rehearsed performances. Stephen Stills was ably supported by the glowing harmonies of Graham Nash and David Crosby on “Girl From North Country,” and Sheryl Crow delivered a touching reading of “Boots of Spanish Leather” from a secondary stage in the middle of the convention center. Springsteen, joined by Tom Morello, enhanced “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with striking guitar solos.Tom Jones, Aaron Neville and John Doe were vocally impeccable in their interpretations.
Jones was excited to revisit a favorite Dylan track. “I listened to a lot of things that Bob had written and when I heard that one, it struck a chord with me,” Jones told Billboard prior to the show. The song is the lead track to his 2010 albumPraise & Blame. “It’s a very important song because it’s (about) what good am I if I don’t so something about certain situations. So I’m happy that he likes my version of it. It seems to me that he does or he wouldn’t have asked me here.”
A few artists provided unique twists on their songs: Beck pushed “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat,” which he recorded for the 2009 charity album War Child Presents Heroes, into fuzzy psychedelia; Los Lobos enhanced “On a Night Like This” with a rhumba rhythm; and John Mellencamp slowed “Highway 61 Revisited” to a Tom Waits-ian dirge with just single piano backing him.
Raitt, who played a slow and bluesy “Standing in the Doorway,” praised Dylan for “his eloquence and his bite” in a pre-show interview. “He writes about those kinds of things that are uncomfortable and need to be truthfully spoken about,” she said. “He writes them better than anybody.”
The audience was equally star-packed. Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, T Bone Burnett, the Band Perry, the Arctic Monkeys, Jeff Bridges, Josh Groban, songwriter and ASCAP president Paul Williams, Valerie Simpson, Jenny Lewis, Ric Ocasek, the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, Desmond Child, guitarist Orinathi, classical pianist Lang Lang, the Doors’ John Densmore and Richie Sambora were part of the crowd that raised a record-breaking $7 million for the charity that assists musicians in need.
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”
Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi – “Million Miles”
John Doe – “Pressing On”
Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Girl from the North Country”
Bonnie Raitt – “Standing in the Doorway”
Sheryl Crow – “Boots of Spanish Leather”
Garth Brooks (via satellite from Pittsburgh) – “Make You Feel My Love”
Bruce Springsteen – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
Neil Young – “Blowin in the Wind”
Melinda Newman contributed to this report.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.
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