Like the Beatles and Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan is one of those artists whose music has been fruitful fodder for reggae artists to mine for years (one of the most enduring tunes from the legendary Heptones, for instance, is their 1977 cover of “I Shall Be Released”). Perhaps it’s Dylan’s melodic, topical writing, perhaps it’s his laid-back style, perhaps it’s the fact that his first name is Bob; whatever the reason, Dylan’s material has been covered by reggae acts for years, so it was no surprise when Is It Rolling Bob?, a star-studded reggae album devoted solely to the legendary singer-songwriter, was released in 2004.
What was surprising was the fact that RAS Records chose to follow it up with this full-length dub version. The decision is dumbfounding because dubs, by nature, remove the songs’ vocals—and those were the strongest parts of the original release. No one can argue that Dylan is a better singer than songwriter, so his music is ripe for remakes by more vocally gifted artists, which is what we got on the first album. Performances by powerhouse reggae singers like Toots Hibbert, Beres Hammond, Luciano, and Marley incarnate Nasio Fontaine carried that first set.
On the other hand, the music on the vocal album was straightforward, benign lovers rock and light roots with no aspirations to step outside of the box (except perhaps for “I and I Survive”, an atmospheric rock cut that was questionably labeled reggae). Dub, though, is—or at least should be—edgy and experimental. This album is neither.
It plays like elevator music: thin, lightweight, and virtually ignorable. The part that isn’t ignorable draws attention to itself for the wrong reasons: namely, an annoying mix that over-saturates the echoing effects on tracks like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door Dub” and “Lay Lady Lay Dub”, producing a piercing sound with echoes tripping over one another. If you didn’t know better, you might think you were having a seizure.
The album isn’t completely without merit, though. There is a somewhat edgier sound on Hibbert’s soulful “Maggie’s Farm Dub” and Sizzla’s quirky, dancehall-inclined “Subterranean Homesick Blues Dub”. For the most part, though, the rest is bland and unsubstantial.
I’d imagine that if you were to cross-reference a database of Dylan fans with that of reggae fans, there’d be a significant number of people who cross over, but you slice into that market even further when you factor dub fans into the equation. Will fans of the original Is It Rolling Bob? care about these dubs? Are the people who bought the first one really that into reggae? Or that into Dylan, for that matter?
The original was a decent tribute with a gimmicky appeal for Dylan fans and a stellar lineup of reggae stars to draw in genre fans, but an instrumental follow-up lacks both that originality and star power. If Is It Rolling Bob? was released for a specific niche market, then Is It Rolling Bob? Dub Versions is a niche lover’s paradise. What do you call a niche of a niche? A sliver? I hope that there is indeed a market for it; otherwise, its release smacks of greed and opportunism.