Supposed they gave a splashy benefit show and almost nobody knew about it? This appeared to be the case when artist/producer T Bone Burnett brought his "Speaking Clock Revue" to the Wang Theatre over the weekend. The lineup was impressive by any standard: Elvis Costello, Elton John, John Mellencamp, Gregg Allman, Leon Russell, Neko Case, Ralph Stanley and more. Tickets for the show, which is only being done in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, topped out at an astoundingly reasonable $125 — far less than some of those artists usually charge, and roughly one-third of what it cost to see a single member of Pink Floyd play The Wall
a couple weeks earlier.
Yet the show didn't sell out (though it eventually came close), and prime seats were still going at the door. A few people I talked to in the crowd said they'd just found out it was even happening; others saw the ads and assumed all the big names weren't actually playing. For a show of this nature, it flew pretty well under the radar.
In any case, this show — to benefit an obscure, if worthy, charity, the Participant Foundation, which brings arts/music to public schools — had too many stellar moments to keep track of: Costello opening the night with a gorgeous "Brilliant Mistake." Allman and Case harmonizing on "Midnight Rider." Mellencamp rocking out heartland-style on "Troubled Land." John and Russell collaborating on the best songs either has written in about three decades. Stanley doing a ghostly, bare-bones "Man of Constant Sorrow." And by the way, Marc Ribot was on guitar. And Jim Keltner on drums. In a 15-piece band. Other than that, just your standard rock show.
Surprisingly, Burnett himself was practically MIA. He gave a couple witty introductions ("We're just taking time to work out the kinks. Who, by the way, are not on the show tonight"). But except for one brief cameo (he and Costello sang backup when actor Jeff Bridges did a tune from the Burnett-supervised Crazy Heart soundtrack), Burnett didn't sing or play a note; and left most of the MC'ing to the affable Costello. It's true that Burnett's current gigs are mainly as a roots-conscious producer and film soundtracker, but he was still a terrific live performer when he hit the Somerville Theatre two years ago.
Still, Burnett's warm non-digital production style and his sonic trademarks-brushed drums, deep acoustic bass, and tremolo guitar-were much in evidence throughout. And everyone featured their Burnett-associated work: Costello chose three songs from his forthcoming National Ransom — another eclectic, largely non-rock album in the vein of last year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, but with stronger and more accessible songs. Mellencamp stuck with his last two, mortality-slanted albums; but made them sound more upbeat than they do on disc. Allman was onstage for the first time since his liver transplant (he thanked his donor before starting) and previewed three songs (including one right up his alley, Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied") from a forthcoming blues album. And young Burnett discoveries, the Secret Sisters from Muscle Shoals, AL, did a knockout, X-sounding version of Johnny Cash's "Big River." Bridges held his own in this company, in part because he had three excellent "Crazy Heart" songs to work with.