Some of the covers stick to the original, simpler song structures particularly Beck's stomp-board-and-strings rendition of Robert Johnson's "The Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and Nick Cave's compelling doomsday choir version of "John the Revelator" while other artists take more liberties and give the traditional songs their own spin. Few bands do this quite like Sonic Youth, which teams up with jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd to make a 10-minute, fuzz-drenched plasmatic jam/spirited spoken-word piece out of "Dry Bones."
The artists' takes on the tunes are great, but the true gems of the project are the songs themselves, gritty stories of people passed down through the decades via everything from gospel and country to jazz and the blues. From the jilted-lover suicide in "The Butcher's Boy" (chillingly covered here by Elvis Costello) to the jilted-lover murder in "Frankie" (originally recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928 and performed here by Beth Orton), these songs tell stories that won't stop being relevant until humans are extinct.
This impressive set includes a concert film, culled from three shows, each of which lasted more than five hours. Highlights include a grizzly looking David Johansen's version of "Old Dog Blue," and Eric Mingus' bellowing, goose-bump-inducing vocals on "Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting." Topping off the bulging boxed set is a documentary called The Old, Weird America, which includes three of Harry Smith's trippy, hand-painted '60s art films.