Graded on a Curve:
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dirt Does Dylan
& V/A, Bob Dylan Uncovered, Vol. 3

Bob Dylan may be the most covered artist of the rock era, although the combined covers of songs written collectively by John Lennon and Paul McCartney would certainly give him a run for his money. Two recent collections of Dylan covers are about as good as it gets, and in many instances, come at his songs from a similar stylistic point of view.

Dirt Does Dylan is the first NGDB album since 2009’s Speed of Life, the last album for original member John McEuen. Original members Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden are still on board for this new album and Bob Carpenter has been in the band since 1979. Jaime Hanna, Jeff’s son, is now a member. The group’s recording career began back in 1967.

This album has a very organic feel, as if it was mostly recorded live, or with few takes or overdubs. There’s a very sparse country feel and the group makes many of the songs all its own. “Girl From the North Country,” from the 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, has a very mournful feel and the group really nails it. “Country Pie,” from Nashville Skyline from 1969, has old-time music overtones and one could imagine that if Bob Dylan heard this cover, it would put a smile on his face.

“I Shall Be Released,” best known from the Music From Big Pink version from The Band, but which was included on the 1971 Bob Dylan Greatest Hits Vol. II album, features Larkin Poe. Like “Forever Young,” which appeared on Planet Waves in 1974, it eschews a weighty arrangement and can be listened to in a new light.

“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” from 1964, the title track from Dylan’s third studio album, may be one of the best tracks here and features various guest vocalists taking turns on different verses, including Jason Isbell, Roseanne Cash, Steve Earle and others. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All-Right,” another Freewheelin’ track, is a very simple cover with the Hannas and Bob Carpenter harmonizing beautifully.

While this is a wonderful Dylan cover album, it also marks the return of a group who hasn’t released an LP in a long time. Hopefully, this is just the first step in a return to recording, given how good this album is and that it is one of the group’s best in many years.

While the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is well known, the musicians who appear on the third Dylan covers album from Paradiddle Records, Bob Dylan Uncovered, Vol. 3, may not be, but should. The New York-based independent record label has quietly become a rising record company, boasting an acclaimed roster of roots and Americana artists, including Pete Mancini, who has recently been touring with legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb.

The label seems to specialize in releasing spot-on collections of cover albums, paying tribute to artists like Dylan, the Kinks, and on its internationally successful, star-studded tribute album from 2020, Willie Nile. After listening to the third installment of the label’s Dylan cover’s album, it’s safe to say it boasts the best multi-volume collection of Dylan covers around.

While past sets have featured a wide range of artists, this new one primarily focuses on the aforementioned Mancini and Chris James. James played in the second incarnation of the Last Hombres (the first included Levon Helm) and more recently had a long tenure as the leader of the blues-rock group the Hideaways. His most recent project has been leading the Haymakers.

The album immediately kicks off with a sound that benefits from the blues roots of James, with a Butterfield-esque reading of “Watching the River Flow,” a 1971 Dylan single that appeared on his Greatest Hits Vol. II. James is regarded as a hot instrumentalist, but this track is a perfect example of what a fine singer he is also. Pete Mancini handles vocals on “Shooting Star” and makes the song, which was the final track on 1989’s Oh Mercy, all his own.

On “Precious Angel,” from 1979’s Slow Train Coming, Mancini’s vocal approach has a Joe Henry feel and the subtle approach here, with emphasis more on piano, reflects the way Dylan himself would approach this song live today, as he now often plays piano onstage. Mancini’s varied vocal abilities are on full display on the cinematic “Señor,” from 1978’s Street Legal, which has the hard-bitten vocal style of Lee Hazelwood.

Annie Mark, the wife and sometime musical partner of Chris James, makes “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which The Band covered on Cahoots in 1971 and which appeared in 1971 on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol II, into a country gallop. That country feel is also evident throughout “On a Night Like This,” from the 1973 sole studio album collaboration between Dylan and the Band, Planet Waves, with its also evident Nashville Skyline feel and to-die-for harmonies from Mancini and James. “If Not For You,” which appeared on Dylan’s 1971 New Morning album and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, is approached in much the same vein as the way the Cowboy Junkies covered the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”

While Mancini and James handle most of the vocals throughout, listeners are rewarded with three tracks from other vocalists: the aforementioned Annie Mark track, Bill Scorazi on “Highwater” from 2001’s Love and Theft, and Rorie Kelly on the bonus closing track, an exceptional reading of “I’d Have You Anytime,” the sole songwriting collaboration between Dylan and Harrison which appeared on Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

It’s interesting that there is no duplication of covers on these two albums. Both of these albums prove the lasting durability and current relevancy of the Dylan songwriting canon.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band,
Dirt Does Dylan

B+

VA,
Bob Dylan Uncovered, Vol. 3

A

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