NEW YORK, N.Y. - As a producer, T Bone Burnett is best known for keeping alive forms of American roots music popularized long ago. A Burnett-curated benefit for arts education, however, focused less on the old than the new.
Called the Speaking Clock Revue, the brief two-city tour started on Oct. 16 in Boston and ended Wednesday in New York, featuring artists Burnett has worked with including Elton John & Leon Russell, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Gregg Allman and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. A band of musicians also used frequently by Burnett, including bandleader Marc Ribot and percussionist Jim Keltner, backed them up.
Three of those acts focused their short sets at New York's Beacon Theater on Burnett-produced material that was either released this week (from John & Russell's "The Union") or still hasn't been publicly heard (Allman, Costello).
Allman was performing live for only the second time since undergoing liver transplant surgery in June. He drew a warm reception and concentrated on a disc due out next year, at one time staring hard at an easel in front of him with the lyrics. "These songs are real new," he confided. Although he looked frail and pale, Allman's voice was strong. The well-received "Midnight Rider" was his only oldie.
Costello did three songs from his upcoming album, "National Ransom," including the title cut. He dedicated one to his 83-year-old father on his birthday. Fellow singers Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters joined him for "Slow Drag with Josephine," which Costello described as "rock 'n' roll as we imagined it to be in 1921."
Mellencamp has flourished creatively since working with Burnett. And his choices reflected the husky-voiced troubadour he has now become, rather than the youthful hitmaker he was in the 1980s.
Backlit with a single white light, Mellencamp most effectively captured the spirit of the benefit. "Save some time to dream," he sang in the acoustic ballad with that name, "'cause your dream might save us all."
From two separate generations, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and country singer Ralph Stanley had voices of rare beauty. Actor Jeff Bridges brought the spirit of "Crazy Heart" to the stage, joined by Costello and Burnett on a brisk "Fallin' and Flyin'," then proved he should stick with his day job when the tempo went down.
John and Russell, the latter with a flowing white hair and beard and a cane he used to get to his piano, were effectively the headliners. Their material was rollicking and solid from the Russell showcase "If It Wasn't For You I'd Be Happy" on.
The focus on the new, while a positive sign creatively, meant the crowd's enthusiasm was more often polite than unbridled.