Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (Columbia)
Various artists

By Bob Bahr

This documentary of Columbia Records' celebration of 30 years of Dylan music plays like a sonic People magazine; it's great for starwatching, but often disappointing in content. The songs and the rock luminaries are of equally high caliber, but wedded together they sometimes form black holes that suck in the irony, heartache and power that Dylan casually constructed into his songs and the vitality and personality that the guest artists suffuse into their own material.

On some songs, such as Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready's hapless take on "Masters of War," Richie Havens' toothless, glossy "Just Like a Woman" and John Mellencamp's uninspired "Like a Rolling Stone," it's a lose-lose proposition. Others, like June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash's "It Ain't Me Babe," the Clancy Brothers' "When the Ship Comes In" and Johnny Winter's barely recognizable "Highway 61 Revisited," are good demonstrations of each musician's skill, but Dylan's actual songs (and this is a two-disc celebration of his songs, mind you) get trampled or forgotten in the process.

There are a few cases where the songs overshadow the interpreting artists, such as the gang bang of Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and Rosanne Cash on "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and, surprisingly, Stevie Wonder's unremarkable version of Dylan's arguably most effective protest song, "Blowin' in the Wind."

And happily, there are a number of songs that hit on all cylinders. "Foot of Pride," an obscure Dylan from his The Bootleg Series (Vols. I - III), is done up right and raucous by the only person on the star-studded bill more rebellious than Bobby D. himself: Lou Reed. Tracy Chapman comes next with an obvious choice, the revolutionary "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Only Roger McGuinn's Byrds-faithful "Mr. Tambourine Man" is safer than Chapman's turn at the mic.

"Seven Days," another Dylan outtake, makes a bid for the upper echelon of great Dylan songs in the hands of Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, who plays it with the right amount of abandon and knowing sarcasm. Neil Young approaches the biting "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues" with Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited version in mind, both vocally and musically. Likewise for "All Along the Watchtower," in which Young pays tribute to both Dylan's and Jimi Hendrix's versions. They are serviceable takes on these songs, even as they skirt true innovation.

The high point on this collection is Chrissie Hynde's "I Shall Be Released," which showcases not only the power of Dylan's tune, but Hynde's estimable skills as a vocalist. Hers is an unassuming interpretation, powered by a huge hunk of heart and rock 'n' roll soul. She is followed by Eric Clapton and his appropriately bluesy and playful look at "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

The Band's performance of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and George Harrison's rendition of "Absolutely Sweet Marie" are pleasant covers. Their efforts are both hindered and helped by the backing band (drummer Jim Keltner, drummer/percussionist Anton Fig, bassist David "Duck" Dunn, guitarists G.E. Smith and Steve Cropper and organist Booker T. Jones) that is present on most every group effort on the disc set — helped because it gives consistency to the sound, and hindered for the same reason.

The spine-tingling excitement that is sometimes produced by rock star summits finally materializes in "My Back Pages," which is sung and shared by Tom Petty, McGuinn, Young, Clapton, Harrison and Dylan himself. Very moving and effective. The same cannot be said for the all-star jam on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," when everybody involved in the evening took the stage, producing more noise than brilliance.

And in the end, there is Dylan, alone with his acoustic guitar and harmonica. His take on the tradition-drenched ballad "Girl of the North Country" shows that despite the fine covers of Dylan songs we've heard over the years, nothing beats Dylan doing Dylan — when rock's greatest poet is switched on. In a voice reminiscent of his vocal work on last year's Good As I Been to You, Dylan sings simply (and typically nasally), conveying the song in his inimitable fashion.

This two-disc set will serve a good purpose if it ropes in new Dylan fans attracted by the celebrity contributions. Dylan fans will probably adopt a "take it or leave it" attitude about the project.