Friday, June 15, 2007

“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.

As Mr. Harrison put it in an interview included in the documentary: “The thing about the Wilburys is, if we had tried to plan that, or if anybody had tried to say, ‘Let’s form this band and get these people in it,’ it would never happen. It’s impossible.”

“The thing happened just by magic. … There was a full moon that night,” he said.

According to Mr. Petty: “It really had very little to do with combining a bunch of famous people; it was a bunch of friends that just happened to be really good at making music.” (And how.)

Time was of the essence when the Wilburys convened in the spring of 1988. Mr. Harrison had wanted to record a B-side of a single for European release and sought out Mr. Lynne, who at the time was working with Mr. Orbison. Mr. Dylan, a pal of Mr. Harrison’s since the heyday of the Beatles, soon agreed to contribute to the track and then the full-blown LP despite being booked imminently for a concert tour.

Mr. Petty, then 37 and thus the pup of the group, rounded out a lineup that almost spanned the entirety of rock history. (Let’s not forget the great session drummer Jim Keltner, who anchored both Wilbury albums.)

Each Wilbury supplied melodies, lyrics and chord progressions. How can you go wrong, Mr. Petty noted, with rock’s greatest singer, Mr. Orbison, and its greatest lyricist, Mr. Dylan?

The writing process and recording sessions, held in the tiny home studios of Mr. Dylan and Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart, lasted all of six weeks. The basic Wilbury concept — five guys with acoustic guitars and a penchant for harmonizing — shines through on both volumes despite the many sparkly sonic flourishes from chief producer Mr. Lynne.

The songs hewed to the simple folk, pop and rockabilly formulas on which the Wilburys cut their teeth as young performers.

Their greatness as individual singer-songwriters was no guarantee of success. Whereas the best rock bands rise up organically from the soil of amateurism, miraculously becoming more than the sum of their parts, supergroups, with their entrenched stardom and tense interplay of calcified egos, lack whatever stuff it is that makes a band sound pleasingly whole.

Police frontman Sting hinted at the uneasy mutual dynamic that can result from a lack of underlying personal affinity. He told the New York Times recently: “We didn’t go to school together. We didn’t grow up in the same neighborhood. We were never a tribe. … We fought cat and dog over everything.”

Of course, tribelike bands (such as, ahem, that famously fractured band in which Mr. Harrison used to play) also end up fighting over everything.

Yet the Traveling Wilburys seemed to have for each other an affection that was as deep as their collaborative ambitions were modest.

They got it right because they weren’t worried about getting it wrong. They were a pleasant surprise (to themselves especially) rather than a calculated stunt.

No less heartening than this week’s reissue is the fact that the Wilburys’ brief musical adventure still serves as something of an inspiration. On her solo album last year, Rilo Kiley chanteuse Jenny Lewis gathered comrades Conor Oberst, M. Ward and Ben Gibbard for a feisty rendition of “Handle With Care.”

Thank God for the young indie Turks.

At least they haven’t forgotten the Warberries.

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