Taj Mahal, Me'shell Ndegeocello, others – 30th Annual John Lennon Tribute (2011)

Taj Mahal, recording as part of the 30th annual John Lennon Tribute at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, finds the chest-bursting peril, the nakedly emotional plea, inside “Come Together” — giving it such a thunderously heartfelt makeover that you’d swear this old Beatles tune had been a blues shout first.

And that’s just one of what becomes a stirring series of remakes on this Lennon memorial project, to be issued today.

Shelby Lynne (“Mother”), Me’shell Ndegeocello (“God”), Alejandro Escovedo (“Help!) and Aimee Mann (“Jealous Guy”) likewise manage to plumb new emotional depths amidst now familiar surroundings — in particular Escovedo, whose version ends up sounding like a harrowingly desperate junkie’s plea. Joan Osborne (“Hey Bulldog”) and Jackson Browne (“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”) stick closer to the script, but still convey a sense of memorable, heartfelt acknowledgement. Elsewhere, Keb’ Mo’ (“In My Life”) and, in particular Betty LaVette (on a pew-rattling gospel-shouting version of “The Word”) add their own soulful addendums, too.

All of that interpretive invention seems to begin with Taj Mahal’s brilliantly un-reverent “Come Together,” just two songs into a benefit with proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross and its earthquake/tsunami relief efforts — as the blues singer adds what he’s called “my sauce, or my wiggle or growl” to Lennon’s original composition for the Fab Four. There’s an interesting, riffy countermelody as Taj Mahal comes out of the initial verse, then is joined by the boisterous and deeply sensuous Deva Mahal and Steph Browne. When Taj returns for the final verse, he gets into, and then way underneath the song’s latent groove — grunting and howling, losing himself a little.

It provides an early highlight, but not the last, on one of the more interesting Lennon tributes you’ll hear. There’ve been plenty of these, of course, in the 30 years since the former Beatle was viciously murdered, but few indeed that approached his music with such a consistent sense of unfettered passion and force.

No kid gloves, here. Lennon, I’m guessing, would have loved that.

Theatre Within, a not-for-profit performing arts presenter dedicated to producing shows to benefit outstanding charities and important social causes, has produced the annual John Lennon Tribute since 1981, shortly after Lennon’s death. The tribute is the longest running event of its kind and the only ongoing tribute show in the world to have earned the support of Yoko Ono.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

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