There was a time in the '60s when the heart of musical expression throbbed in downtown New York coffeehouses. Drawing on diverse influences -- from Appalachian ballads and Mississippi blues to Memphis rockabilly -- those folk musicians who centered themselves in Greenwich Village on Bleecker Street produced highly personal, original work that reinvented traditional folk and forever changed rock 'n' roll.
"Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the '60s" is a tribute to those times and those musicians, with contemporary '60s-styled singers performing songs written in that period. As a valuable roots-to-rock history lesson, "Bleecker Street" is more well-meaning than successful. It's a tribute attempting to duplicate art works so singular that the comparisons will almost inherently pale.
Boston folkie Jonatha Brooke kicks off the hootenanny with Simon & Garfunkel's crunchy travelogue "Bleecker Street." While she captures the original's sweet innocence, she's unable to convey S&G's youthful urgency -- the part that came from jittery rock 'n' roll. Later, restless rocker Marshall Crenshaw sheds his edge and focuses on the melodic qualities of Dylan's "My Back Pages," an archetypal folk song ultimately identified with the pinched, electrifying vocals of its creator.
Coming closest to realizing the original artists' feel are AAA radio hero Ron Sexsmith mimicking a fluttery, fragile Tim Hardin; song-crafter Jules Shear singing a beautifully whiny version of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Darling Be Home Soon"; and country star
Beth Nielsen Chapman precisely recreating Judy Collins' ethereal lullaby "Since You've Asked." John Cale and Suzanne Vega give Leonard Cohen's dark yet buoyant "So Long, Marianne" a wonderfully grating, spooky and faithful rendition.
Some artists take the deconstructionist route: Patty Larkin's indolent "Everybody's Talkin'," for instance, might actually be better than Harry Nilsson's hit version. And Larry Kirwan and fellow Irish rockers Black 47 fervently perform Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," illuminating the three-decade-old anti-war song with an urgent, modern light.
The harmonically complex Suzzy and Maggie Roche take a hypnotic approach to Buzzy Linhart's dreamy "The Love's Still Growing," and Lucy Kaplansky of Cry Cry Cry immediately seizes the listener with the crackling opening verse of Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind." The song loses cohesion, however, when CCC partners Richard Shindell (who sounds like Paxton) and Dar Williams (who is a true '60s vocal throwback) take over succeeding verses, breaking up the flow of what might be one of the era's best-crafted melodies.
One major disappointment is Chrissie Hynde's rendition of Tim (father of Jeff) Buckley's "Morning Glory." Anyone who has heard the original has been tattooed by the keening, delirious passion in Buckley's voice. His soaring tenor was so full of pain that his vocals added as much emotion to the song as the lyrics did. Of everyone on this tribute, the original, inventive Hynde should understand that certain songs are almost uncoverable, structured and imprinted by the voices that created them.
With some pretenders pushed to the limit, there's no doubt that the songs on "Bleecker Street" are marked with the deep brand of their originators. But these reinterpretations confirm one basic concept: Good music transcends time and place. A solid country song can soar out of Nashville and alight in Bakersfield, Calif.; a stirring R&B riff can fly out of Motown and settle in London. These enduring folk songs, then, can rocket into the canon of American classics from the street where coffeehouses have since been taken over by shops selling Beanie Babies and Korn T-shirts.