Pledging their time
Bob Dylan is many things to fans. He is multitudes, just as he’s depicted in the film “I’m Not There,” which delivered a collection of Dylans of different times and interpretations: as a simple troubadour, a young antihero, a family man, a sage.
Some of those sides of Dylan appeared onstage Wednesday at the tribute concert “Like a Complete Unknown” at the Skirball Center, in connection with its detailed exhibit on Dylan’s life -- his lyrics and image through the years, one of his old guitars, a handwritten high school essay on Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
For some, this might seem an unsettling treatment of an artist who is still very much alive and whose last album went No. 1 just two years ago. But obsessive study of the man has been a part of Dylan’s story since the early days of his career, with songs that not only moved and inspired the players of his time but the generations that followed.
At the Skirball, it was something else in the hands of Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zack de la Rocha, standing alone with an acoustic guitar and looking a bit like a younger, angrier Dylan: unshaven, his hair wild and askew. His take on the Dylan legacy was fittingly raw and intense, as he strummed a few chords and bit hard into the rhymes of “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a song of social injustice and rage over the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
Lucinda Williams leaned in a similarly stormy direction during a weary, pointed “Masters of War,” lunging forward with her guitar and not apologizing for its timeless (and timely) antiwar theme. “I’d rather offend a few people and get my point across,” she said with a smile.
John Doe performed songs he recorded for the “I’m Not There” soundtrack in rich, soaring vocals, wailing to the edge of his voice on “Pressing On.”
And at the beginning of the night, singer-songwriter Meiko opened the show with “It Ain’t Me Babe,” with hushed vocals and quiet charm. She admitted to being nervous and forgetting some of the lyrics, which became a running joke when, as it turned out, most of the other acts brought printed lyrics as a safety net.
Maria McKee told of meeting Dylan at a New York recording session in the ‘80s for her band, Lone Justice, and not being overly impressed as a 20-year-old with a bit of punk attitude.
“We have a love-hate relationship,” she joked, but then sat at the piano for a haunted, heartfelt reading of his “Death is Not the End.”
Bearded and barefoot, singer-songwriter Michael Franti noted how it has often been others who drew a connection between his work and Dylan’s, adding: “I remember when I got my first Bob Dylan album -- on iTunes, last week.”
Franti was still able to find a real connection, choosing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” because it was most like a rap tune, as he dropped in a few lines from Grandmaster Flash: “Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge . . .” He followed that with a slow and twangy “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” a song he related to Bob Marley with its notorious refrain: “Everybody must get stoned!”
Tim Easton also performed solo, strumming through “To Ramona,” a song of warmth and lost idealism from 1964. “I don’t know how a 23-year-old wrote this,” Easton said. He looked pleased between lyrics, as if for a moment he understood at least one version of a complicated artist.