|Various Artists - Is it Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan|
|Music Disc Reviews DualDisc|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 25 January 2005|
What’s this, another gimmick album? A way to invoke Bob Dylan’s iconic name and grab his fans, without having Bob on the recording, or even involving him? And by using the shared name Bob in the title, it is a cheap shot to suck in the Bob Marley fans, yet another commercial disinterment of the reggae prophet?
No, on all counts. It’s a rather perfect pairing, actually, of the man who represented in song the powerless and the idealists of the ‘60s, with the Jamaican vocalists who are all artistic progeny of the man who did the same in the ‘70s. Dylan was, in fact, involved and was set to record a number for this album. but couldn’t quite find the right vehicle. According to reggae repository Roger Steffens, who wrote the liner notes, it’s common knowledge among Dylan fans and historians that, when asked some years ago who he would choose if he could meet any person, living or dead, Dylan replied, “Bob Marley.”
So there are all kinds of social and historical implications present here, but after
listening over and over, it’s the music that stands out.
First and foremost, this is an outstanding collection of vocals, of pure, gorgeous singing. It’s always been curious to me how much musical talent resides and flourishes in this one small impoverished Caribbean island nation. That the list of superlative Jamaican musicians is overwhelmingly populated by male vocalists (there is only one female on this album, and even she disguises her gender with her name, JC Lodge) is no surprise. Think about it: to become a great guitar or keyboard player or drummer, you’ve got to have the kit, and even a beat-up used anything is beyond the resources of most Jamaicans. But to become a great singer?
Practice, practice, practice. Now give me that mike and I’ll show you I’m a star. Hey, all these guys even know how to hold a note. Remember singing?
Every single vocal performance on this album is outstanding. The 13 artists represent a wide range of styles and voices, and some take a little getting used to if you’re not familiar with them. Like, how about the opening notes out of the mouth of Apple Gabriel, of the vocal group Israel Vibration? But if you listen with an open musical mind to his consummate style, and the quality of his voice beyond its unusual timbre, you quickly understand he’s a big reason why Israel Vibration remained a top group for decades. (They’ve done all right for three kids who bonded through their shared suffering at the Mona polio rehab center. Yes, they performed on crutches.) And it was a perfect placement to have his rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” lead off the album. Without going into a three-page analysis of Dylan’s words and their sociopolitical context juxtaposed with today’s headlines, let’s just say that any questions you may have had about the appropriateness of this concept are erased. Can, and should, these JA boys and girl be singing very white, very American Bobby D’s songs? Oh, yeah.
For a while I thought, the album top-loaded the best performances, with Toots Hibbert, probably the best-known of the lot to U.S. audiences, coming in next with a superb treatment of “Maggie’s Farm,” giving it meaning that Dylan is incapable of. And then the great Beres Hammond does the same with “Just Like A Woman.” But the more I listened, the more I came to cherish every single performance. There just are no missteps here. Even crazy man Sizzla is a perfect choice to growl “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” One of this album’s most fun aspects is trying to hear when the artist changed a word or two of the lyrics, mostly to rasta-fy it here and there. One of the videos on the DVD side has Sizzla doing it Dylan-style in an alleyway, with the flip cards, with Bunny Wailer and China Smith standing behind him.
I know about that video, but I didn’t see it. My copy of this dual disc was very
problematical. When I tried to go through the process, on three different computers and a DVD player, of getting to the content, it was inaccessible. “No liner notes ... no photos ... no videos,” the disc informed me. To even get that far on a computer, you have to go through an irksome process of registering with DVD Launcher and then inputting the UPC number from the disc, a regimen few are going to have the patience for. Even the CD side stopped functioning in some of my players.
Before leaving this praiseworthy effort, a few more kudos must be thrown, first to producer Doctor Dread, head of Ras Records and originator of the concept. He threw in a mix of reggae styles that covers a wide territory and always keeps the listener interested and involved. He gathered a stellar band of studio musicians, including Sly Dunbar, China Smith, Robie Lyn, Sky Juice and the legendary Dean Fraser on sax. Lee Jaffe should be singled out for adding the harmonica you have to hear on Dylan songs, but that you rarely hear in most reggae. His execution is seamless.
If it’s been a long time since you listened to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, go back and you’ll hear the same studio chat line opening that album. Duplicated here, it becomes the clever title and link, with a spliff/Marley joke thrown in to boot.