The worthwhile 2CD/DVD compilation The Traveling Wilburys Collection captures a moment when superstars let their hair down and made music for the pure joy of it.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Supergroups tend to come with a lot of expectations – given the talent involved, the music has to be high caliber. Stands to reason, right? With all that star and/or creative power in the room, the results pretty much have to be amazing, or be consigned to the dustbins of history. Mere mortals (i.e. folks who don’t think of themselves as artists) can’t imagine the pressure, even if it’s self-inflicted.
In 1988, via the LP Vol. 1, the Traveling Wilburys said “Fuck that noise.” The lineup is definitely heavy – George “Nelson Wilbury” Harrison, Bob “Lucky Wilbury” Dylan, Tom “Charlie T. Jnr.” Petty, Jeff “Otis Wilbury” Lynne and the legendary Roy “Lefty Wilbury” Orbison – but the vibe is decidedly not. Originally assembled by Harrison to knock out a B-side to the single “This is Love,” from his popular album Cloud Nine, the Wilburys were less a band than a bunch of buddies getting together to dick around. That’s not to say these recordings are sloppy – far from it. There’s no way that craftspersons as supreme as these could merely puke up some half-formed melodies and call it a day. But there’s a relaxed atmosphere here, a sense that everyone involved was in it only for the fun, not to make art. Hooks offer handshakes instead of lapel grasps, lyrics unfold rather than drill, rhythms lope rather than gallop, and even the most tightly crafted nuggets sound casual, even modest.
Thus the irony of the record’s artistic and popular success – it sold a few million copies and won a Grammy. It’s no surprise that Harrison’s songs provided the hits – not only coming hot of the ascent of Cloud Nine, but also because “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line” are the kind of instantly memorable pop tunes that an ex-Beatle would write.
But the rest of the record revitalized the careers of its other participants as well. The work Petty did with the tropical-flavored “Last Night” presages his work with Lynne on the wildly popular Full Moon Fever, released the next year. Following a string of less-than-satisfying albums, “Dirty World” and the acerbic epic “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” were the best Dylan songs in years, setting the scene for his comeback via Oh Mercy. The spectacular “Not Alone Any More” – written primarily by Lynne – announced to the world that Orbison, the oldest and, by the 80s, least estimated member, was still at the peak of his considerable powers, and led to his own comeback with Mystery Girl. (A comeback sadly truncated by his premature death in 1989.)
Every one of these tunes, as well as deeper cuts “Heading For the Light” and “Rattled,” has held up nicely. Put a bunch of old friends with enormous talent into the studio with no real expectations (who’s gonna pressure these guys?) and it’s not a project – it’s a party. One that still, 28 years later, sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.
Despite Orbison’s death, the Wilburys reconvened a couple of years later to see if lightning could strike twice. Vol. 3 feels like most sequels – it hits the right beats and could never be called bad, but doesn’t hit the heights of the original. The same elements are here – loose arrangements, unhurried performances, easy craftsmanship – but there’s something missing. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the first album – by virtue of its nature as a follow-up, Vol. 3 automatically suffers the burden of expectation its predecessor avoided. Or maybe it’s the absence of Orbison, whose voice gave the first album’s recordings a near-spiritual dimension. Whatever it is, it keeps otherwise solid songs like the lush “New Blue Moon,” frisky “Poor House” and garage rocking “She’s My Baby” from achieving the transcendence of the best of Vol. 1. By no means lousy, Vol. 3 is simply underwhelming, and was wisely the band’s last.
Originally released in 2007, The Traveling Wilburys Collection (via Wilbury Recordings/Concord Bicycle) puts both albums together as a 2CD set along with a bonus DVD of the band’s videos and a surprisingly (given the Monty Pythonesque liner notes) straightforward documentary. Each CD also includes B-sides as bonus tracks: “Maxine” and “Like a Ship,” both featuring the mysterious “Ayrton Wilbury” (AKA Harrison’s son Dhani) on Vol. 1 and the benefit album contribution “Nobody’s Child” and a cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” on Vol. 3 – all well worth the spins.
Even if ultimately it’s the first album that’s the true classic, this is still a worthwhile compilation that captures a moment when superstars let their hair down and made music for the pure joy of it.