The “supergroup” label—which critics and fans first applied to such late 1960s outfits as Cream, Blind Faith, and Crosby, Stills & Nash—has arguably since been overused. But if ever an outfit deserved the supergroup tag, it’s the Traveling Wilburys, whose members’ reputations loom so large that it’s difficult to believe their collaboration actually took place. The membership included Tom Petty, ELO leader Jeff Lynne, early-rock icon Roy Orbison, and a couple of other guys you may have heard of named Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
Perhaps aware that a lineup like that would raise expectations sky high, the Wilburys ostensibly eschewed any effort to be profound; they seemed to view their project as a busman’s holiday and tried to just have fun. That they clearly did, and the fun is infectious on their 1988 debut, which comes loaded with ear candy like “Handle with Care” and the fifties-inflected “Not Alone Anymore,” both of which profit from Orbison’s inimitable soaring vocals, Harrison’s trademark guitar, and Lynne’s production. Lynne and Petty move center stage for the catchy “End of the Line” while Dylan sings lead on such gems as “Dirty World” (which always reminds me of the Newbeats’ 1964 hit “Bread and Butter”) and “Congratulations.”
The group’s 1990 second album—which Harrison, Petty, Lynne, and Dylan recorded after Orbison’s death—is a bit less inspired but has its moments. Harrison’s guitar shines on “Poor House,” for example, and “Wilbury Twist,” while silly and slight, exudes charm and rocks hard.
The band’s two records, Vol. 1 and the jokingly named Vol. 3 (there was no Vol. 2), were repackaged in 2007 as Traveling Wilburys Collection. The box set adds two likable bonus tracks to each album, including a faithful cover of “Runaway,” the 1961 hit from Petty’s hero, Del Shannon. Also in the box: a DVD that contains the group’s five videos and The True History of the Traveling Wilburys, a documentary that shows how effortlessly and enjoyably they worked together. Now that package is being reissued on digital discs as well as in a vinyl edition and via high-resolution downloads. If you’re a fan of any of the group’s five members—and who isn’t?—you’ll want a copy.