The entire output of the supergroup known as The Traveling Wilburys is at long last available on various digital platforms. To mark the occasion Concord Music Group is reissuing this 2007 collection in a nice package that includes both of the Wilburys’ albums on CD plus a bonus DVD with several music videos and a short documentary on the making of the original album.
One of the best parts of the package is that documentary, which captures the Wilburys, otherwise known as George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, in the process of recording Traveling Wilburys Volume 1. If like me you love peering behind the curtain of the recording process, this is a real treat.
The project began by accident, as Harrison explains in the documentary. He was looking for a B-side to the “This Is Love” single from his Cloud Nine album and the other four happened to be in the vicinity of Dylan’s L.A. studio. So he pulled out a song that had been in his pocket looking for a home for some time, “Handle With Care,” and the five of them polished it up and put it on tape. To make a long story short, they had so much fun doing that song they decided to do an album, and knocked it out during about 10 days in May 1988.
The record went multi-platinum in the U.S. and U.K. Orbison died a couple of months after its release, but the remaining four got back together and released a second disc, mischievously titled Volume 3, in 1990. It didn’t meet with the same level of critical or commercial success, although it did chart in the top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic and went platinum in the U.S.
This deluxe three-disc box sold handsomely when released in 2007, going platinum in Australia and the U.K. and gold in the U.S. It’s great to have these discs in their remastered form as an upgrade from the original CD, made when the technology was still new.
To tell the truth I didn’t pay much attention to Volume 3 when it came out, having less interest in the group in the absence of Orbison, whose pop-operatic vocals were such a boost to the original sound. Even the better songs on the second disc, like the doo-wop of Dylan’s “7 Deadly Sins,” the loping Americana of Petty and Lynne’s “Poor House,” and “Where Were You Last Night” with Dylan on strong lead vocal, don’t quite rise to the level of those on Volume 1. The hit single “Wilbury Twist” is really something of a novelty track and kind of dumb. On the other hand, the bonus track of Del Shannon’s classic rocker “Runaway” is pretty nifty, especially Jim Horn’s hot saxophones and Lynne’s keyboards.
Lynne was always controversial as a Wilbury, and indeed he did seem outclassed by the star power of his four compatriots. But watching the mini-documentary, he comes off better than expected. His vocals are just as strong as anybody else’s, especially on the uplifting closer “End Of The Line,” always one of my favorites. Oh, and don’t miss the chapter on Dylan’s stunning vocal delivery of the complex lyrics of the ballad “Tweeter And The Monkey Man.”
The Wilburys were a complete surprise and delight when their first album was released in 1988. It was a reminder of just how wonderful first-wave rock stars Dylan and Harrison were, how influential they were on then-current star Petty, and how influential on all of them Orbison was. (It’s kind of heart-breaking to see in these videos and the documentary the still young- and fit-looking Harrison, and Orbison belting out his parts as though he wouldn’t be gone within a couple of months.) Most of these songs hold up surprisingly well, and the best of them would probably be pop/Americana hits if released today. So if you don’t have it yet, you can get this box set as vinyl with digital downloads, in the smart three-disc box, or just as digital downloads from your favorite platform.
(Concord Bicycle, 2016)