Portraits Of Bob Dylan
Purple Pyramid Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Dan Smith
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/02/1999
Since Yes is my favorite group and Bob Dylan my favorite songwriter, this tribute album by longtime Yes guitarist Steve Howe has interested me since it's unveiling several months ago. Although it has been out since early May in the UK and Europe, the release date in the US was July 13th, and since Portraits Of Bob Dylan is a pretty small release (on Purple Pyramid Records) it will probably only just now be getting to chain stores (I saw a copy at both Best Buy and Circuit City near my house - for the record, CC is selling it for two dollars less).
In the liner notes and in a recent NFTE interview (which can be found by exploring www.nfte.org) Howe describes his aim with this record as being an exercise in building arrangements to fit the moods of these twelve Dylan songs. Through his choices of guest vocalists and timbres, I think Howe has succeeded, although in several cases (notably "Lay, Lady, Lay") he perhaps sticks a bit close to the original Dylan versions.
Tribute albums are often an exercise in triviality and recently have become almost ridiculous in their samey quality - especially those for progressive bands. The ELP and Rush tributes perpetrated by Magna Carta Records are nearly laughable. On the other hand, something like Encomium, the Zeppelin tribute that came out a while ago, features a variety of flavor-of-the-month groups (Hootie, 4 Non-Blondes). But Howe stays out of this rut by introducing quite a variety of tunes and a variety of arrangements. When I get around to compiling a CD-R of my favorite Dylan covers, you can bet that Howe's "Sad-Eyed Lady" and "Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" will be on there beside Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower" and the Byrds' magnificent "Mr. Tambourine Man".
What Dylan fans might enjoy about this collection is that Howe doesn't do the 'typical' tunes - you'll not hear "Like A Rolling Stone", "Mr. Tambourine Man", etc. here. The only real greatest hits are "Lay, Lady, Lay" and "Just Like A Woman". Howe, instead, digs up some of the better forgotten tunes from Dylan's early 60s folk trilogy and tweaks their arrangements, and even does an unreleased Dylan song ("Well, Well, Well"). Also, the atmospheres are nearly always appropriate to the song.
What Yes fans will enjoy are: great electric and acoustic work by Howe, Jon Anderson's magnificent vocal on "Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands", Geoff Downes keyboard textures, and Annie Haslam's work on "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue".
Howe sings four songs, and although twenty years ago that might have prophecied disaster, his voice isn't bad at all, although it still has that homespun, gravelly, not-always-quite-in-tune quality to it.
Specific tracks that merit mention here are:
1. "Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands", Dylan's 1966 12-minute centerpiece on Blonde On Blonde, features quite simply the finest vocal performance Jon Anderson has ever waxed. Howe's organ and guitar work are excellent, particularly a gorgeous lyrical solo toward the end. This one track is worth the cost of the disc twice over.
2. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", one of the great acoustic songs from Bringing It All Back Home, is treated to a faster, shuffly rhythm and a magnificent Annie Haslam vocal. Haslam, formerly of Renaissance, seems a poor match for this song, but she pulls it off very nicely.
3. "Just Like A Woman" is given a happier, but tender treatment, with Geoff Downes (Asia, ex-Yes) on keyboards and Howe providing a very good vocal performance.
4. "Well, Well, Well", an unreleased Dylan tune, is an intense gospel-feeling romp featuring P. P. Arnold on vocals. It's very good, a shame Dylan himself never recorded it, as it includes some pretty good lyrics.
5. "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll", Dylan's resigned protest of unnecessary killing and the fact that justice just is not color-blind, is done very nicely, Dean Dyson's gutteral voice adds a heavier feel to the vocals and Howe presents a very Spanish-feeling backdrop, featuring Anna Palm's electric violin.
There are one or two minor missteps, but on the whole this is a good album and a fitting tribute to Dylan's genius from one of the best guitarists in the world. You may start Portraits Of Bob Dylan expecting guitar-hero pyrotechnics and sloppy guest vocals, but will end it impressed at Howe's ability to create especially appropriate and impressive arrangements of some of rock music's most enduring tunes.