The Absolute Sound — August 2007

The Traveling Wilburys: The Traveling Wilburys Collection
Review by Neil Gader
The Absolute Sound — August 2007

 Jeff Lynne and George Harrison, producers. Rhino Records 79982 (two CDs, one DVD; also available on LP).
In the grand scheme of things, the Traveling Wilburys, the fictitious “band” that George Harrison formed with a little help from his friends — Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne — was little more than a musical detour for a quintet of rock icons caught in the lull of midlife careers.

 The story goes something like this. The idea for the Wilburys crystallized in early 1988 when George et al. gathered in Dylan’s home studio to write and record the B-side to the Harrison single “This is Love.” The song “Handle With Care” was created and tracked on the spot. Credited to the Traveling Wilburys, it rose to number 45 on Billboard’s Top 100. So satisfying was the experience that in the ten days the time remaining before Dylan had to depart on tour, the Wilburys wrote and recorded a song a day and released the collection as Volume 1. A second Wilburys album, Volume 3, followed two years later. Why no Volume 2? When Orbison died in 1988, prior to the completion of Volume 2, the project stalled. And when it was released in 1990, it was renamed Volume 3, as kind of tribute. Out of print for over a decade, Rhino Records has re-released this homespun collaboration as The Traveling Wilburys Collection. It will ultimately be available in multiple formats, including vinyl, and a deluxe linen-bound double CD edition with a The True History of the Traveling Wilburys DVD.

 After twenty years, Volume 1 holds up remarkably well because at their core, the Wilburys were a tribute band honoring the roots-based rock music of the ’50s that they’d all grown up with — from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Elvis. Not only are the players comfortable with the material, but their pleasure is infectious as they seem to revel in the relative anonymity outside of rock’s pressure cooker. The lasting achievement, however, was in coaxing seminal rock n’ roll crooner Roy Orbison out of semi-retirement. Hearing his heavenly harmonies on “Handle With Care,” or his rolling growl and soaring angelic lead vocal on “Not Along Anymore,” is worth the price of admission. And it’s his absence that causes the second disc to fall so flat in spite of added bonus tracks such as a lackluster cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”

 The True History… DVD has the atmosphere of a 25-minute home movie, but there is some interesting minutiae, including “Sidebury,” where rock-god session drummer Jim Keltner discovers the percussive possibilities of a SubZero frig. On the other hand, shame on the producers for only including an excerpt from the “Handle With Care” video.

 The sonics are what you’d expect based upon the simplicity with which the tracks were laid down. Not a lot of imaging but a solid establishing beat, warmish, non-edgy vocals, and surprisingly good extension and pitch in the lower octaves. Less so on all counts for the relatively flat “third” volume.

 Further Listening: Roy Orbison: Black and White Night; Tom Petty: Highway Companion

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