Dylan at the Grammys I: "Maggie's Farm," 2011

2011-02-13, Grammy Awards, Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

Since we're going by show-anniversary date, our five-part series on Bob Dylan at the Grammys kicks off with his most recent Grammys performance. It is also, simply, his most Grammys performance.

Let me explain.

As anyone who has ever paid even a modicum of attention to the television broadcast knows, the show’s producers are obsessed with creating so-called Grammy Moments™. They envision Grammy Moments™ as performances that everyone will be talking about at the proverbial watercooler the next day. Now, do they leave it to chance that something will become a Grammy Moment™? Of course not. During the telecast, they will tell you over and over again, “This is a Grammy Moment™,” “Another Grammy Moment™ coming up,” “This next Grammy Moment™ is even more Grammy Moment™y than the last Grammy Moment™,” etc. 

They have a few methods to force-feed America a Grammy Moment™. An all-star tribute to someone who died is a staple; Bruce Springsteen and a dude from No Doubt covering The Clash was a Grammy Moment™. Setting up a stage somewhere other than the venue is another; Bono throwing up peace signs in front of the Statue of Liberty was a Grammy Moment™. But their most tried-and-true method for manufacturing a Grammy Moment™ is the cross-generation collaboration.

Every recent year features one or two of these. Watch, I'll pick a year at random: 2003. I just looked it up and, sure enough, you've got the Foo Fighters strangely paired with late jazz pianist Chick Corea (who certainly deserved his own performance slot) and Outkast somewhat more logically paired with Earth, Wind, and Fire

I'll do it again: 2015. Man, that one puts 2003 to shame. Jessie J meets Tom Jones, Hozier meets Annie Lennox, Sam Smith meets Mary J. Blige, and Pharrell meets Hans Zimmer. That's already four in one show, and I'm not even counting Lady Gaga meets Tony Bennett and Rihanna + Kanye meets Paul McCartney, since those were at least promoting actual recordings together (albeit ones practically designed with subsequent Grammy Moment™ performances in mind).

I imagine that every year a producer in the Grammy Moment™ lab suggests pairing Bob Dylan with someone. And I imagine that, normally, he has the good sense to say no. Well, not in 2011. For whatever reason, in a year where Bob didn't even have an album to promote, he agreed to sing with Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers.

Now, let’s be frank: It's easy to clown the Grammys. I just did for sixth paragraphs. But I'm not actually that against this general concept. Pairing like-minded artists from different eras may be forced, but it's unique, and sometimes the artists have a genuine connection. Matching Dylan with the Mumfords and Avetts makes a certain amount of sense; folksy Americana songs played on banjos while wearing suspenders had a real pop moment that year. That may not have happened without Dylan and The Band all but inventing the sound in the Big Pink basement many years earlier.

Both younger bands know it too. Marcus Mumford ended up as part of the Dylan-sanctioned New Basement Tapes project repurposing Bob's unheard lyrics and has covered plenty of Dylan deep cuts to prove his bonafides (this version of "Farewell," with Gillian Welch looking on, is particularly good). The Avett Brothers, too, seem like they know their Dylan history, and have covered their share of chestnuts from the catalog. So, if you can accept that the Grammy Moment™ is a thing that is going to happen and you just better get used to it, this one seems as passable an idea as any. (In fact, Bob borrowed the same idea a couple years later for the Americanarama tour with My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Bet the Grammys wished they’d come up with the cornball title Americanarama!)

Before Bob came on, both groups performed their own songs (introduced by David Letterman from his New York studio for no obvious reason beyond CBS corporate synergy). And they both do swell! I was a Mumford & Sons fan in this era, and if you too are on board with their hokey shtick, this horn-assisted version of "The Cave" will suit you just fine. I care less about The Avett Brothers, but they performed one of the two songs of theirs I like and, it too, delivers exactly what a fan would want from them. So far so good!

Then Bob comes on, and things go straight to hell.

If you've ever seen a Bob Dylan concert in the 2000s, you know it often takes a few songs for his voice to warm up. Mick Jagger doing hours of vocal calisthenics backstage, he isn't. So, without that warmup, Bob comes on at graveliest, full-gallon-of-phlegm-in-his-throat rasp. The fan forums used to call this voice "the wolfman." There's a famous story of Neil Young pumping weights before his Saturday Night Live performance to approximate that middle-of-a-concert adrenaline. Wasn't there a vocal version of that Bob could have done before he came out?

That's only the beginning of the problems. Mumford and Sons has four band members. The Avett Brothers have five. So you've got nine people backing Bob - already too many - and then he shows up with four more, three from his band plus a ringer. You've now got five guitars, three basses, and two banjos, all of which seem to be equally high in the mix. Apparently the engineer didn’t realize he could just mute half of 'em and no one would notice.

You might have noticed that I have yet to mention what song they performed together. That's another problem. "Maggie's Farm" is an odd choice. Now, I appreciate the perversity of choosing the song with which Dylan famously "went electric" at Newport for this acoustic-music tribute, but it is not a song well suited to an all-star jam format. "Maggie's Farm" has no chorus, barely a melody, is mostly one chord, and offers no obvious spot for a sing-along. They've taken a song where a certain amount of minimalism and restraint is required and tried to blow it out. It doesn’t work. There's a reason people usually go with "I Shall Be Released" or "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" in these situations.

This performance takes a just-good-enough idea and executes it in a hamfisted way that makes it sound like absolute garbage. So, in a way, definitely a Grammy Moment™.

Note: Only the first installment in this series looking back at every time Bob performed at the Grammy Awards will be free. The remaining four installments will be for paid subscribers only. If you missed yesterday’s announcement about the change, you can find it here. Subscribe by clicking below: