A Rock with Cracks; Promising but Uneven Gospel Tribute to Bob Dylan

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Joseph, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Various Artists

Columbia

Twenty-five years ago, Bob Dylan did the unthinkable. Embracing evangelical Christianity, he recorded three albums referred to today as gospel - whether because he incorporated musical elements of traditional black gospel music or because he sang about salvation, heaven, hell, redemption and Jesus. Although Mr. Dylan continued to refer to the New Testament on successive albums, his evangelical fervor faded, leading to speculation that he had shed his Christian faith.

Today the saga continues, and Mr. Dylan remains enigmatic about his beliefs. Christian and non-Christian Dylan fans continue to tussle over the legacy that he will leave behind: Is he or isn't he?

While Jesus has been nearly nonexistent on his albums since "Shot of Love," in concert he has continued to play both occasional songs from that era as well as a steady stream of hymns such as "Rock of Ages" and "I Am the Man Thomas."

Mr. Dylan's performance on "Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan" should stir up the debate, recently rekindled by Dylan biographer Scott Marshall, who makes the case for a continued Christian journey in "Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan."

The album is produced by a longtime Dylan aficionado named Jeffrey Gaskill. It has songs from "Slow Train Coming" and "Saved" covered by legends of black gospel music. Some are compelling, providing new and raw re-interpretations; others are dreary, reminding the listener that just because songs are about Jesus does not make them gospel.

But when Shirley Caesar opens with a rousing rendition of the title cut, it's easy to see why some Dylan songs, lyrics aside, can be thought of as gospel. Miss Caesar's "Slow Train Coming" is convincing partly because she truly makes it her own, adding her own rap at the beginning, quoting from the book of Joshua before adding, "I want to share Bob Dylan's song with you."

Such mastery, however, is all too rare on this uneven recording. Lee Williams & the Spiritual CC's sleepy rendition of "When You Gonna Wake Up?," the Fairfield Four's uninspired "Are You Ready?," the Mighty Clouds Of Joy's tinny "Saved" and Rance Allen's pained "When He Returns" are topped in the snooze department only by Aaron Neville's listless "Saving Grace."

That these legendary artists cannot get their arms around these songs may mean one of two things: Either these aren't gospel songs at all, or these artists, presumably having been "saved," for decades simply cannot understand songs written by a new convert who had met the Man only months before and was still giddy with enthusiasm. …