In another review, I made the comment that if anyone is going to cover another artist's work, then something must be added to the banquet, straight takes rarely succeeding very well. Bob Dylan has come in for surprisingly few all-up tribs. It may be because the bard himself once designated Manfred Mann as his most impressive interpreter, a sentiment I very much agree with. That opinion may well have daunted others. If this is indeed the case, the reaction has been ill-grounded. Everyone does one or two takes in a given LP sooner or later, but only the Hollies, in Hollies Sing Dylan, and perhaps one of two other bands made complete discs on the master…though I clearly recall an interesting re-do of Blood on the Tracks, my fave Zimmerman slab, by an indie duo that was pretty damn good.
Thus it was with a great deal of anticipation I came to this CD created by a duo who engaged the services of the superb Marty Rifkin to fill out a trio, all engaged upon what's actually a kind of supplement to an annual shindig Andy Hill & Renée Safier have hosted for 17 years: a fest of Dylan music live in SoCal. Anyone that dedicated has to have a few nice surprises up their sleeve…and they do.
The stand-out element of the 14 songs here is Safier's extraordinarily sensitive readings, a singer possessing an unusual combination of Merrilee Rush, Ricky Lee Jones, Suzanne Vega, and, of course, predominantly her own distinctive folk-country tones. Safier's voice oft drips with an aching sensitivity filtered through delicate beauty and a fragility that would break and disappear in less capable hands. On the other hand, she knows quite well what composes a slow and sultry heat wave, showing down-home sexiness in the cover of the title track, It Takes Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. However, the quaverily trilled Spanish accentuations on one of Dylan's coolest but darkest cuts, One More Cup of Coffee, are rich in both nuance and the threnodic tones the original intended. Hill's stepped synth airs provide a perfect foggy background, then he pipes in on backing vocals, contrasting Safier.
The two share lead vocal duties pretty much equally, with Hill's cuts drenched in prairie sod, the workingman's lament, and a salt-of-the-earth sprechestimme that usually works well...but not always. He's also a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, keyboards, harmonica) favoring finger-picking and an almost jazzy chamber-classical approach to piano, often with deliciously skirling confectionary runs, but always a sober respect for propriety. Simple Twist of Fate brilliantly marries lounge with light country airs and a faintly Bill Evans-ish bluesy echo.
So what about Marty Rifkin? Jesus, but this guy knows the depths of his art and instruments dead cold, nailing colorative and side-lead aspects in witheringly arresting lines, fills, and incidentals. His dobro playing is heavenly and that pedal steel's highly reminiscent of Red Rhodes. The guy has the erudition of David Lindley, the taste of Sonny Landreth, and the evolutionary sense of the best of the new- and prog-grass tunesmiths. Many years ago, I caught Jerry McGee with John Mayall at the Whiskey and was stunned by how eloquently an abbreviated instrumental voice could speak, filling in atmospherics you didn't even now were missing until you heard them. Marty Rifkin's exactly that kind of player. Without him, this release would be significantly reduced. Choosing him was a masterstroke, and, in the end, his is the glue that *really* cements the entire shebang. We can only hope that this is just the first in a series scampering through Dylan's ample trove, with the trio remaining as is - no extras, no deletions, just more of this same labor of heart and art.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2007, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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