All the Dylan you’ll ever need by folk-rock troubadours on one CD
The Byrds predominately made a name for themselves via their superb interpretations of Dylan, versions some might say surpassed even those of the original author himself. So a compilation devoted solely to Dylan covers makes a lot of sense, especially since they recorded so many. And though The Byrds themselves were capable of writing quality material of their own, it was largely through Dylan that they discovered their true voice as early folk-rock pioneers, whose influence would last well after the group were no longer a functioning unit.
Play The Songs Of Bob Dylan is essentially an expanded edition of the original LP from the late ‘70s (titled Byrds Play Dylan), and includes various outtakes and live cuts not previously available (although most can be found as bonus tracks on the remastered editions of their albums). And while much of what’s presented here will already be familiar to long time Byrd watchers, to have them all in the one place makes this compilation if not essential, then certainly entertaining.
We kick off with The Byrds eternal cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” perhaps the song most people associate with the folk-rock quintet, and one which, despite its age, hasn’t dated since the day it was recorded. With Roger McGuinn’s 12-string electric guitar and the group’s three-part harmonies, the tune has timelessness written all over it. Other cuts such as “All I Really Wanna Do,” “Chimes Of Freedom” and “Spanish Harlem Incident,” also off their 1965 debut, still resound with all the freshness and youthful vigour of a band who clearly knew that they were on their way.
From Turn! Turn! Turn! there is the mournful “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” as well as “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” McGuinn and Co’s classic reimagining of what had originally been a somewhat sombre and colourless protest song. The gorgeous “My Back Pages” is given an accomplished makeover, while from the band’s post-David Crosby/Gene Clarke period (in fact by 1969 McGuinn was the only original member left) is represented by the slightly psychedelic “This Wheel’s On Fire,” a song covered by everyone from The Band to Julie Driscoll, an exquisite “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and a solid country-sounding “Nothing Was Delivered.”
Live recordings of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Positively 4th Street,” while not quite as exhilarating as the Byrds’ earlier period, are refreshing all the same. If there is one misstep, it comes in the form of “Lay Lady Lay,” whose chorus-heavy arrangement is a little overdone. Which is why alternate takes of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes Of Freedom” come across as clear indicators of The Byrds’ unique musical vision from the outset.
From folk-rock to near-cosmic country-rock explorers, The Byrds were one of the most quietly influential groups of the era. The Byrds Play The Songs Of Bob Dylan is evidence of that and more.
Lester Bangs once wrote: “They took the basic lessons of The Beatles and The Stones, filtered them through Dylan and the less pretentious aspects of the folk scene, and came up with a big, new, visionary sound.” And indeed they did.