“The Traveling Warberries?” “No,” I patiently corrected a bored young clerk recently at a local books-and-music big box. “Wilburys.”
The exchange underscored how years of retail desuetude can erase the memory of a great band.
Clearly, the Wilburys — the friendly collective consisting of the late legends George Harrison and Roy Orbison, the still-breathing legends Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, and the semilegend Jeff Lynne — had been off the shelves for too long.
That changed, happily, with Rhino Records’ rerelease Tuesday of the short-lived band’s pair of albums (1988’s “Vol. 1” and 1990’s cryptically named “Vol. 3”) along with a “deluxe” package that includes a DVD documentary and video clips.
It’s wonderful to have these jovial, jangly gems back — whether it’s the infectious communal vibe of “Handle With Care” and “Last Night,” the raucous “She’s My Baby” or the raggedly hopeful “End of the Line.”
Significantly, too, “Vol. 1” featured “Not Alone Any More,” a passionate parting shot from Mr. Orbison and his beatific tenor. Two months after the album’s unlikely ascent up the charts, Mr. Orbison died of a heart attack at age 52. (Ringleader Mr. Harrison himself died in 2001, and it was his estate that let the Wilburys LPs drift out of print.)
In retrospect, though the Wilburys proved a rare and vital exception to one of rock music’s most woeful industry cliches: the supergroup.
So-called supergroups don’t function like your proverbial up-from-garage outfit; rather, they take players with established pedigree, such as Cream, and morph them into formidable new entities. They expand out of big-league musical stables, like the Santana alumni of Journey.
More often than not, and despite their recurrent commercial appeal, such supergroups are either artistic non-starters or prone to bloat of embarrassing proportions.
You can take your pick, but for me, the nadir of misbegotten supergroupism was Damn Yankees (Tommy Shaw of Styx, Jack Blades of Night Ranger and the loathsome Ted Nugent), that big-haired, early-‘90s hangover of bad American guitar rock.
But I wouldn’t bicker were you to nominate Bad English (an amalgam of Journey and the British singer John Waite) or Asia (a pop-heavy side project of prog-rock vets from Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Even the estimable Jimmy Page was reduced to slumming in rickety supergroups following Led Zeppelin’s 1980 demise — one with Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers (the Firm), another with co-principal David Coverdale of Deep Purple and Whitesnake fame.
Supergroups, by their nature, don’t lack for talent, but they rarely stay together long. Here, at least, the Wilburys were true to form, with the post-Orbison “Vol. 3” failing to match the success of its predecessor.
Yet, however briefly and for whatever reason, the Wilburys got it right, musically speaking.
It likely had to do equally with the depth of the members’ long friendships and the casual, spontaneous atmosphere of their union.