I FIRST SAW T Bone Burnett in 1975 when he was 27 and one of the less-known musicians on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. A sterling cast of stars surrounded him.
The idea took hold.
Saturday at a nearly sold-out Wang Theatre, Burnett – who’s risen to fame over the past three decades as a producer for a slew of artists – was surrounded by another crop of stars: Elton John, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Gregg Allman and many more. They’re all artists he’s produced. They and more than 20 other musicians made up the Speaking Clock Revue, a modern-day jamboree that made its debut in Boston. (There’s another gig in New York on Wednesday.)
It was a two-set show, with a mix of country, blues, bluegrass, gospel and roots-rock. Many folks played songs Burnett had produced. There were no real “hits”, unless you count Allman’s ‘Midnight Rider’. That wasn’t the idea. This was all about sharing – and subtly promoting a cause. Burnett said he’d been inspired by the documentary ‘Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” and the money raised was to fund music education in schools.
Costello began the night with ‘Brilliant Mistake’. Throughout, he and Burnett traded the role of the nattily attired witty emcee, with Costello calling Burnett his “older, taller, smarter brother”. Burnett, a beaming presence, played only a bit of guitar and sang backup.
The three-hour show was sharply paced and star-powered, but there was no star-tripping. Stellar moments came from 83-year-old country singer Ralph Stanley, New Pornographers’ singer Neko Case and bluegrass quintet the Punch Brothers.
Guitar ace Marc Ribot helmed the multi-piece backing band and drummer Jim Keltner anchored it.
There were highlights scattered everywhere, but certainly Mellencamp’s four new songs were up there. The heartland rocker has stripped away the fist-pumping arena rock and roughened up his sound, almost like Tom Waits. He got the night’s first standing ovation for ‘Save Some Time to Dream’, a call-out to a younger generation. Dream, but realize sorrow and failure come to us all.
Actor Jeff Bridges stepped into his Bad Blake Crazy Heart role with two country-rock tunes. Allman, the gracious recent recipient of a liver transplant, thanked his donor and sang three gritty blues rockers from an upcoming CD, Low Country Blues.
The climax came at the end when two grand pianos were wheeled on for John and Leon Russell, the two having recorded a new CD, The Union (out Tuesday). John called bearded, white-haired, sunglassed Russell – who used a cane and never spoke or looked at the crowd – his idol. The two swapped vocal and piano leads on six songs that hit rock-gospel-soul heights. One of the best was a poignant Civil War song, ‘Gone to Shiloh’, with Allman joining on vocals. John and Russell closed the evening with genuine grit and fire.
© Jim Sullivan, Boston Herald, 18 October 2010