A Nod to Bob: An Artists' Tribute to Bob Dylan on His 60th Birthday

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A Nod to Bob: An Artists' Tribute to Bob Dylan on His 60th Birthday. Red House Records.

Tribute albums are tricky beasts. Any artist who warrants such acclaim will no doubt have a strong following with deeply held opinions about the merit of someone else singing those songs. Play a song too straight to the original, and there are charges of knock-offs. Deviate too far, though, and all hell could break loose. It's a fine line between homage and mimicry.

Witness last year's undertaking, Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Ani DiFranco's interpretation of "Used Cars" was just as bleak and wrenching as the original, yet thoroughly her own. Conversely, Hank III should have been sentenced to hard time listening to lounge acts at Trump Casino for his butchering of "Atlantic City."

Yep, tributes are a thankless business.

A Nod to Bob tackles the artist of them all, "the single most important singer/songwriter in 20th century music." In this release by Minnesota-based Red House Records, the liner notes offer up too many of these laudatory words. When it comes to Dylan's lyrics, "Everything is major. Everything is profound. Everything is great." (Hardly. Check out 1985's Empire Burlesque.) Fortunately, the performers themselves avoid such overstatement.

It's a mixed bag, as tribute albums inevitably are. Some straightforward interpretations work better than others. Lucy Kaplansky sings "It Ain't Me, Babe" accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Her singing is emotional without being overwrought. A slowed-down "I Want You" is musically beautiful, with layers of organ, Dobro, chimes, and a piercing harmonica, but singer Cliff Eberhardt tries too hard to capture the naked longing of the song.

Selected by the artists themselves, the songs run the gamut from the familiar (and oft-recorded) to the obscure. In the hands of Vancouver's Tom Landa and the Paperboys, "All Along the Watchtower" becomes, of all things, an Irish reel, complete with flutes and fiddles. It's an impressive version, but what would Jimi think? The seldom-heard "Clothes Line Saga" suits the unique vocalizations of Maggie and Suzzy Roche. …