Given that Bob Dylan’s catalog has pretty much been interpreted to death by all manner of song stylists by now, an album of all-Dylan covers would seem a rather risky proposition, but Tim O’Brien proves more than up to the task with Red on Blonde.
This 13-song collection of Zimmermannerisms ranges from classic (“Maggie’s Farm”) to obscure (“The Wicked Messenger”), from ancient (“Oxford Town”) to recent (“Everything Is Broken”), from political (“Masters of War”) to whimsical (“Man Gave Names to All the Animals”). What remains constant throughout is O’Brien’s obvious appreciation of and affection for the material, which he expresses not by rendering letter-perfect copies of Dylan’s originals, but rather by infusing them with the spirit and strength of his own talents.
And those talents are considerable. A multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, fiddle, bouzouki) with a fine bluegrass pedigree (Hot Rize, Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers), O’Brien is also gifted with a preciously high lonesome voice that helps lend these songs a melodic grace not apparent in many of the original versions. With the help of several fine pickers and singers from the bluegrass community (Scott Nygaard, Mark Schatz, Jerry Douglas, Charlie Cushman, Mollie O’Brien, Kathy Mattea and Celete Krenz among them), O’Brien has fashioned an engaging, joyously listenable disc that furthers the reputation of Dylan’s songsmithery because of how successfully these tunes can be adapted to another musical setting.
All of which is less true on the similarly themed Tony Rice disc of Gordon Lightfoot songs. For one thing, Lightfoot ain’t Dylan (though he ain’t chopped liver, either). Secondly, this is merely a collection of previously released Lightfoot covers from Rice’s previous albums, rather than a freshly inspired labor of love. Furthermore, while Rice’s talents as a picker are never in question, he fails to breathe much life into the originals; the interpretations are staid, and Rice’s voice isn’t very expressive. Still, for die-hard Lightfoot fans who appreciate efforts to dig behind his obvious hits (only “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Early Morning Rain” are widely recognized here), this is a reasonably pleasant collection.