[1 July 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
A year ago, Telarc had an interesting idea when they decided to put out The Blues White Album, a collection of songs from the Beatles’ 1968 classic album, completely reworked by contemporary blues artists. However, aside from a couple of compelling covers, the album was an unmitigated disaster, a horribly bland offering of blues-by-numbers performances, and easily one of the worst albums of 2002. The only thing that album succeeded in showing everyone was how good a blues band the Beatles could be; almost every track on The Blues White Album paled in comparison to the original versions so badly, it was embarrassing. Based on that one completely shambolic effort, it’s a bit surprising that Telarc has dared to come out with a sequel.
If the White Album was an interesting choice for a blues covers project, Bob Dylan’s seminal 1966 double album Blonde on Blonde is a much more encouraging one. Dylan’s album took the relentless rock ‘n’ roll of 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, and threw in various other styles, including folk, country, and blues, and along with his starkly contrasting lyrics—ranging from deeply personal to outright surrealistic—it was unlike any rock record in history, before and since. The least a blues fan could wish from Telarc this time around would be for them to assemble a selection of today’s blues artists who are able to transform these timeless songs into something mildly original. Well, for the most part, they did a good job, and Blues on Blonde on Blonde is quite the pleasant surprise.
One reason Blues on Blonde on Blonde works rather well is the presence of the rhythm section from Double Trouble; bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton offer some stellar back-up on nearly all the tracks. Whereas The Blues White Album often sounded like blues done by Muzak, these songs, while not always perfect, still crackle with life. Brian Stoltz’s cover of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is slowed down to a more slinky blues number, with various hollers and claps in the background adding a fun, rave-up touch. Noted Canadian singer/guitarist Sue Foley serves up a seductive version of “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”, while Walter Trout delivers a straightforward, but solid rendition of “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”, greatly resembling the version Dylan himself has been performing in recent years. Eric Bibb’s “Just Like a Woman” is much more understated than the original, as his tender vocals add a nice dose of soul to the song, and the terrific Joe Louis Walker, whose cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” stole The Blues White Album, returns with an energetic vocal performance on “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”.
Young Texas blues guitar phenom Sean Costello injects some youthful exuberance into “Obviously 5 Believers”, his solos deftly treading the line between soulful and self-indulgent, while Clarence Bucaro delivers a jaw-dropping ragtime rendition of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”, the lazily-strummed acoustic guitar and the cute clarinet accompaniment turning Dylan’s song into a pre-World War II pop ditty. Cyril Neville, a far less annoying Neville than his brother Aaron, provides his smooth vocals on a midtempo version of “I Want You”, making it sound a lot like Clarence Carter’s great soul song “Slip Away”. Best of all is C.J. Chenier’s accordion-fueled Cajun take on “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, which closes the album on an effervescent note.
Blues on Blonde on Blonde is not without its flaws, such as Swedish blues man Anders Osborne’s bland cover of “Visions of Johanna”, Duke Robillard’s by-rote “Pledging My Time”, and Deborah Coleman’s ordinary version of “Temporary Like Achilles”, and it would have been nice to hear covers of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Fourth Time Around” to complete things, but the CD still makes for a fun listen. The blues on the original album is still far superior, and it would have been nice to hear something a bit grittier and raunchier, much like the dank, funky blues Dylan is playing with his current band (he and his band’s recent re-recording of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” shatters all of the performances on this album), but when you take Blues on Blonde on Blonde at face value, as nothing more than some musicians having a good time playing some of their favorite Dylan tunes, you can’t help but smile and enjoy it as well.