Booker T. and the MGs – Bob Dylan: 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration (1993; 2014 reissue)

I’m sure there will be those who balk at a title like that, what with Neil Young, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan himself, of course, appearing on this gala 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration reissue. I’d argue, though, that Booker T. and the MGs were the fulcrum — along with a certain harp-blowing bard, of course — for much of what made this event great.

Young copped to it, asking surviving members Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Booker T. Jones to participate in a subsequent worldwide tour in 1993. That Young couldn’t be confused with simmering soul men like Otis Redding, Sam Moore or Wilson Pickett only strengthens the argument for the uniquely malleable talents of Booker T. and the MGs. There has been perhaps no more chameleon-like figure in rock than Young, and he came to understand — after listening to Cropper, Dunn and Jones work through Dylan songs by a dizzying array of artists on this October 1992 bill at Madison Square Garden — that they had a shared sensibility. Even if precious few would have matched these two entities up on stage.

The proof, however, is all there. In Booker T. and the MGs’ first three tandem appearances as part of Bob Dylan: 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration: Deluxe Edition (set for release in 2DC, 2DVD or Blu-ray formats on March 4, 2014 via Columbia Legacy), they back up Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed and Johnny Winter. And that’s before they give rangy new context to Young’s raucous takes on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

Elsewhere, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Eric Clapton and the O’Jays are featured one after the other — each of them, somehow, fronting a backing group featuring these same Booker T. and the MGs. Most sidemen would have pulled both hamstrings trying to keep up. Not these three. They skip along with a loose and happy-looking Harrison, who with Petty and Dylan had then recently helped form the Traveling Wilburys. They then gird an all-star group once the guest of honor arrives, tearing through Dylan’s “All My Back Pages” and “Knocking in Heaven’s Door.”

The additional items associated with this reissue include bonus tracks from Clapton, Sinead O’Connor, John Mellencamp and Nancy Griffith — but, just as interesting but likely far less heralded, also a groove-kissed MGs take on Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” It illustrates, in microcosm, everything that made them perfect for this concert, not to mention the later tour with Young.

Along the way, Booker T. and the MGs blended jagged rock (the nascent MGs met, after all, on a date backing a rockabilly singer; Jones later sat in on Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union, while Cropper worked with Jeff Beck, Levon Helm, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart and a host of others); down-home country inflections (that was Jones producing Stardust, by Willie Nelson, also featured here); and, of course, their always delectible brand of finger-licking soul.

So, sure: Come for the big names on this long-overdue Bob Dylan: 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration redo. (Harrison, after all, was making his first appearance on an American stage in nearly 20 years.) But pay close attention, all the same, to those typically anonymous guys playing behind them. Booker T. and the MGs are the glue that held everything together, both here and on countless albums still to be discovered by fans of the many Dylan acolytes gathered on this memorable night. They proved, once again, that they could do it all.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz 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! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso