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Various Artists

T Bone Burnett Presents the Speaking Clock Revue

(Shout! Factory; US: 18 Oct 2011; UK: 18 Oct 2011)

Good music for a good cause

Good music for a good cause? The idea of having a variety of artists get together and play for a worthy cause predates rock and roll itself. This has become a staple of the modern music industry ever since Monterey Pop. The soundtrack albums from these events have featured some legendary performances, but more often than not the chemistry of the live event somehow manages to escape the recording process and leaves the second-hand audience cold. Most of the time a person would be better off just giving the money to the charity itself and leaving the record on the shelf.

That’s why T Bone Burnett Presents the Speaking Clock Revue is such a pleasant surprise. This is one of the few albums compiled of selected live concert performances for a cause (benefiting arts education) that actually can stand on its own as a solid compilation disc. The shows themselves took place over two nights at the Beacon Theater in New York City in October of last year. The album includes 11 performances by a notable mix of performers, which includes Elton John and Leon Russell, John Mellencamp, Yim Yames, Elvis Costello, and others. What many of these individuals share in common is a past association with the event’s organizer—producer/musician T Bone Burnett.

Burnett found inspiration to host the shows from two separate sources. He was inspired by the documentary about the troubles state of public education Waiting for Superman, and he wanted to create the type of collaborative live feel of his first tour as guitarist in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. The two concerns mesh well here. The house band, led by music director and guitarist Marc Ribot, provides the varied artists with a solid foundation from which to express themselves. In particular, they know when to get out of the way and just let the spotlight performer do his or her thing.

The album is full of highlights, as varied as Ralph Stanley’s acoustic gospel hymn, “Lift Him Up That’s All” and the spooky, Doors-like rock of Karen Elson’s “The Truth is in the Dirt”. The two songs are opposite in their existential search. For Elson one has to descent to ascend, while Stanley takes a more direct approach to reach the heavens. But their shared concern for finding meaning in the material world and making it a better place fit’s the occasion well.

Other songs, such as the Punch Brothers’ “Rye Whiskey” and Neko Case’s “Hold On, Hold On” seem unrelated to the event at hand, but are still top notch performances of cool and clever hook filled songs that inspire the audience in attendance. You do not have to preach to the converted, and those that paid the price of admission presumably like the musicians and their reason for appearance. Now they just want to have fun.

There are no bad cuts on the record. The bigger stars provide expected thrills, including Greg Allman, who does a smoldering version of the old Allman Brothers song from the seventies “Midnight Rider” with Neko Case, as if it’s a country blues number. And the lesser known names, such as the Secret Sisters, excel as well. The Sisters do this by wringing every drop of feeling from Bill Monroe‘s “The One I Love is Gone” in a manner that makes Linda Ronstadt’s more famous cover pale in comparison.

Fans of Americana and classic rock will certainly enjoy this record. This would make a wonderful holiday gift as the music kicks butt and the money goes for a good cause.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

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