As the songwriter nonpareil of the rock era, Bob Dylan certainly knows a good tune when he hears one. He launched his performing career interpreting traditional folk classics, and as his Never-Ending Tour gradually inches that career toward its end, he's taken to peppering his set lists with covers of contemporary songs written by peers and acolytes alike, proving a respectful and vivid interpreter of the new classics. The two-disc bootleg release Tribute to the Martyrs captures Dylan's November 9, 2002, gig at Elmira, NY's Coach USA Center alongside highlights from other stops on the autumn 2002 leg of the tour, and despite the presence of originals like "Positively Fourth Street" and "All Along the Watchtower," it's the covers that command attention. Soon after longtime friend Warren Zevon announced his terminal lung cancer, Dylan began regularly adding Zevon songs to his set, accounting for no fewer than four songs here: all boast an uncommon poignancy and thoughtfulness, in particular "Mutineer," a vocal performance that ranks among Dylan's very best. A blistering version of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and a luminous reading of Neil Young's "Old Man" are similarly impressive, but best of all is the Van Morrison cover "Carrying a Torch," which forever puts to rest the argument that Dylan's not much of a singer. Tasteful packaging and superlative sound quality bolster an excellent release.
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