The concept of a compilation of Bob Dylan's gospel songs is certainly an idea whose time has come. That this does not feature Dylan performing the original versions of these songs is yet another. Executive producer Jeffrey Gaskill assembled a wide-ranging assortment of the hottest talent in the gospel arena, both past and present, to perform the songs from Dylan's Slow Train Coming and Saved albums, and producer Joel Moss extracted phenomenal performances from Shirley Caesar, the Fairfield Four, the Sounds of Blackness, Rance Allen, the Chicago Mass Choir fronted by Regina McCrary (who sang backup for Dylan on the 1978 and 1979 tours when these recordings were originally done), the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Helen Baylor (with Billy Preston), Aaron Neville, Dottie Peoples, Lee Williams & the Spiritual QC's, Mavis Staples, and Dylan himself (performing a duet on a completely rewritten version of "Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin'"). In addition, a reunion of Dylan's touring band from the period, which included Tim Drummond, Jim Keltner, and Spooner Oldham, performs on "Solid Rock" with the Sounds of Blackness. All of this is interesting, of course, but listeners know that all-star tributes fall short more often than not. This is no tribute, however, but a showcase of Dylan as one of the great gospel songwriters -- albeit 25 years after the fact.
Caesar's version of the title track is a scorcher and would not have been out of place in a church pastored by James Cleveland. The Sounds of Blackness' "Solid Rock" does indeed rock -- it's funky, driving, and wrapped loosely around a minor-key trill and riff pulsing just ahead of the beat. Lee Williams & the Spiritual QC's' sweet, swinging read of "When You Gonna Wake Up" is smooth and haunting, like a more streetwise version of the Impressions, giving the groove in the tune a bluesier edge than the original. Peoples' "I Believe in You" could be a testimony in church, full of understated phrasing until she gets to the refrains when it breaks and the redemptive hope in the tune comes pouring from the center of her voice. The Fairfield Four's read of "Are You Ready" is standard fare for them, meaning, of course, that the performance is beautiful, stirring, and moving, but it is less recognizable as a Dylan tune than anything else here. Neville's "Saving Grace" suffers from his now overly sweet trademark manner of phrasing. Detroit's Rance Allen kicks it on "When He Returns." His baritone is reminiscent of C.L. Franklin's, and comes from the heart of the church. He understands this is a song of great hope and personal conviction. The slight quaver in his voice at the refrain reverses the track on itself; the listener can feel something of a universal connection to the grain in his voice which, at least for Allen, and Dylan too, is not a relative but an absolute truth. The set closes with the Dylan/Staples duet. Performed by Dylan's own touring band, this is a house-burning blues, ripping in the dark, razor-cut of Dylan's voice. Staples wanders in after about a minute, and after a pleasant and humorous exchange, joins Dylan on the funkiest, most apocalyptic track on the set. This is raw, furious, scorching blues-funk. This is not an exercise in reverence but revelation, the roar of struggle and resolution, with the singers staring into the void and seeing the blackness and horror, retreating from the edges and the drunkenness of fear to the font of refuge. This fine collection warrants a complete reappraisal of the records these tracks came from, as well as Shot of Love and Infidels. Perhaps it also warrants a compilation of Dylan's own versions as well -- it would hardly be untimely since he continues to perform many if not all of these songs today. If you buy one gospel record in 2003, let this be it.