When the dozy, dreamy singer-songwriter Cat Power walked onstage at last week’s “The Music of Bob Dylan” benefit, she was slated to sing “Moonshiner,” a desperate folksong about desperate alcoholism. But the singer (who says she was drinking a bottle of scotch a day before she dried out earlier this year) played something else instead.
Murmuring silkily over her barely strummed electric guitar, Cat Power sung the antique ballad “House of the Rising Sun,” which Bob Dylan covered on his eponymous 1962 debut. Back then, Mr. Dylan talked about a ruined girl taking a train back to evil New Orleans, but beneath Cat Power’s sweetly hazy guitar, she changed the words. “One foot on the platform, the other on a stage,” she sung. “I’ll never go back to where it all changed.”
The twist was quietly Dylanesque: inventive, foggy and persuasively autobiographical. The 23 other headliners at this cover-fest at Avery Fisher Hall couldn’t quite match that, but they nonetheless put on a riveting concert.
After that overwhelming “Rising Sun,” the hip-hop collective the Roots (paired down here to a three-man band) covered the protest song “Masters of War.” What can a rap trio do with a lengthy and unmelodious and boyishly irate folk classic? The Roots’ newest member, “Captain” Kirk Douglas, reinvented Mr. Dylan’s singer-songwriter fury with a gnashing but elegant electric guitar, plus a bouncy falsetto. Drummer and bandleader Questlove kept “Captain” Kirk in check, dexterously shifting between Sly Stone spaciness and militaristic ferocity. Meanwhile, the third musician played a tectonic sousaphone.
(That horn was a suitable shtick, but only a scrawny shadow of the eight-man brass section on Al Kooper’s amphetaminic version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” Accompanying Mr. Kooper’s undyingly fuzzy organ, those harmonizing horns boomed their way into ribcages and nasal cavities.)
It took the imperial composer Philip Glass to match the Roots’ creativity: He played “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with glacial iciness. His prickly, forlorn notes should have been allowed to trickle out without any interference, but Natalie Merchant was there to sing along. She told Mr. Dylan’s civil-rights story with bumpy Beat-poet diction: Every line was followed by a pompous pause. But her black-turtleneck posturing was excused by the airy sweetness of her voice, and by her partner’s serrated piano.
Mr. Glass’ riffs were echoed later on. Playing the boozy come-on “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind,” the silver-haired pianist Allen Toussaint shuffled between ragtime vibrancy and Mr. Glass’ quiet serration. As a musician and producer, Mr. Toussaint helped shape the swampy funk of 1960’s New Orleans R&B, so it wasn’t hard to hear Louisiana homesickness in the song’s lovelorn nostalgia. But he didn’t let go of the song’s sexiness, allowing his caramel falsetto to hit beseeching peaks. And when he dipped back down to slower and less steady notes, he uncovered Mr. Dylan’s insecure cynicism: “Where you’ve been don’t bother me nor bring me down in sorrow / It don’t even matter to me where you’re waking up tomorrow / But mama, you’ve been on my mind.”
Not everyone did so well. The young Brooklyn band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who self-released a hit album last year, usually deliver wound-up, sharply melodic pop. But here they treated Mr. Dylan’s most winningly hyperbolic love song, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” like a whiny soft-rock ballad. Singer Alec Ounsworth slowed his amphibious Kermit vocals to a gloomy monotone and dragged the band into VH1 sludge.
After that unripe cover, it was surprising that the similarly hip indie rocker Ryan Adams, in Ray Ban sunglasses, mussed hair and a black leather jacket, could muster such an immaculate performance of the druggy epic “Isis.” Where did Mr. Adams pick up that Kentucky-truck-stop speedball grunge? And how is it that it suited Mr. Dylan’s mystical voyage so naturally?
At the end of the show, punk foremother Patti Smith took the stage and, with her old partner Tom Verlaine softly picking at an acoustic guitar, tremblingly recited the quiet “Dark Eyes” from Mr. Dylan’s Empire Burlesque (1985). The song comes from an uneven era in Bob Dylan’s long career, but in the hands of Mr. Verlaine and Ms. Smith, it was a misty hymn to old gods and primordial beauty.
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