Culled from two separate 2010 performances—Oct. 16 and 20, to be precise—T Bone Burnett Presents the Speaking Clock Revue features 11 highlights of renowned country/blues producer T Bone Burnett’s special star-studded event. Modeled after Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue from 1975, Burnett has said his goal in hosting the Speaking Clock Revue was to display the magic of a collaborative live performance.
The whole collection sounds unmistakably curated by Burnett—indeed, nearly all his chosen artists to play he’s had some prior hand in recording. He’s long been celebrated for his smoky, skeletal production qualities in the studio, and his penchant for this sort of atmosphere permeates throughout pretty much the entire revolving lineup. And what a lineup it is, showcasing performances by legendary musicians Gregg Allman, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello and Elton John alongside those of lesser-known rising stars like the Punch Brothers, Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters.
As is to be expected with any concert-best-of album, there’s no weak link—every song is flawlessly executed and more than a just little inspired— but the energies of a few tracks do sound more immediate on record than others. Allman’s slow-burning, moody interpretation of the Bros. classic “Midnight Rider” is an obvious highlight, featuring gorgeous harmonies from Neko Case. Case’s own “Hold On, Hold On” places her snow-pure vocals in the foreground atop her characteristically lively country-folk. After some intimate banter about his father and the importance of music, Costello effectively sets the mood with “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” a sparse, gloomy shuffle in the vein of Tom Waits, and you can practically feel the reverent hush that My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (aka Yim Yames) casts over the room during his stripped-down, wonderfully understated rendition of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).”
The rest of the tracks have their selling points—in particular, bluegrass elder statesman Ralph Stanley provides some intimate storytelling, and Jeff Bridges gets to bust out some music from his acclaimed film Crazy Heart—but it’s Karen Elson’s performance of “The Truth Is in the Dirt” that provides the compilation’s most riveting listen, an ethereal dirge with poignant string flourishes and an impressively varied range of dynamics that grows more and more haunting with each listen.