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Music with a Message
on January 24, 2012
Fifty years after its founding in 1962 (the year Bob Dylan released his first album), Amnesty International continues to do lifesaving work for prisoners of conscience and victims of injustice around the world. In 1977, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the 1970s, Amnesty's Secret Policeman's Ball concerts and records have generated funds for the promotion of human rights and raised awareness of discrimination, state censorship, police brutality, torture, the death penalty, and genocide. AI currently has over three million supporters.
As for Bob Dylan, few artists have been offered accolades to match those laid at his feet. He's among the greatest poets of our age, a transformational figure in the history of music. There's not a singer or songwriter alive who doesn't owe a debt to his wit and wisdom, and thousands cover his clever, compassionate songs every day. They line up to perform on albums like this one, and there's a Dylan tribute disc for just about every genre you can name: pop, rock, blues, reggae, country, folk, classical, jazz. While most of these are heartfelt, many are uninspired or insipid, and few are memorable.
Fortunately, this four-CD, 73-track compilation is both musical and meaningful. The renowned performers on "Chimes of Freedom" possess not only ample talent but also a deep feeling for the political and personal messages that Bob communicates. And they clearly support Amnesty International, whose anniversary they celebrate. None of them accepted any money for their work (nor did producers, arrangers, engineers, or studios), thereby maximizing their assistance to AI. The music and the cause mesh perfectly.
Nearly all of the tracks are new studio recordings, but Joan Baez, Sugarland, Adele, My Chemical Romance, Dierks Bentley, The Dave Matthews Band, and Marianne Faithfull each contribute previously unreleased live tracks. There are legends like Johnny Cash, Pete Townshend, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Beck, Lucinda Williams, Taj Mahal, Kris Kirstofferson, Eric Burdon, and Pete Seeger, among others, as well as more recent stars: The Avett Brothers, Raphael Saadiq, Rise Against, My Morning Jacket, Diana Krall, Sinead O'Connor, Ziggy Marley, Lenny Kravitz, Angelique Kidjo, Seal, and many more. And of course Bob himself is here in the form of his original 1964 song "Chimes of Freedom."
A majority of the acclaimed Dylan anthems are covered, but in over five hours of playing time, there's plenty of room for rarely-heard songs, unusual interpretations, and little-known groups and individuals. Of course, that's a selling point for those of us who like to explore new music. The inclusion of a few performers may irritate those who are not fans (Miley Cyrus, anyone?), yet almost all of them do credit to Amnesty and to Bob's music (with the horrifying exception of Ke$ha, who groans, sobs, and screeches throughout "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," sounding for all the world like she's taken leave of her senses and embarked on a suicidal bender).
The case for this set is a very minimal affair: the four CDs fit into an all-paper package that's about the size of a standard single-CD jewel case. Each disc is contained in one of four panels that fold out. A listing of tracks and artists appears on the inside panels along with a brief historical essay by Sean Wilentz, who is a professor of history at Princeton. There is no booklet.
In 1992, Bob Dylan and his legendary contemporaries held the best concert ever produced in his honor: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration. Many of music's greatest stars expressed love and gratitude for the man and his music: Neil Young, Eric Clapton, The Band, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Johnny Winter, Ron Wood, Richie Havens, Chrissie Hynde, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and others. Such a laudatory gathering will never be repeated, but the names on this new compilation provide evidence of Dylan's continuing relevance. Listening to the variety of styles represented reveals the universality of his melodies and lyrics and the pervasive influence he has had on our culture. May it also motivate listeners to lend their support to AI and to human rights.
Most of the music is marvelous, the album benefits a great organization, and the price is remarkably low. Don't hesitate. Get it!