The story behind The Basement Tapes, the recordings made by Bob Dylan and the Band in 1967 — following Dylan’s motorcycle accident the year before — has famously taken on mythic proportions. As most people know, the tracks that were recorded in upstate New York during Dylan’s hiatus from the public scene were never intended for release, but rather as demos for other artists to record (i.e. Manfred Mann’s “Quinn the Eskimo,” the Byrds’ “Nothing Was Delivered,” the Band’s “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released”). However, the tracks from the sessions ended up as bootlegs starting with the infamous Great White Wonder. Eventually, 16 songs from that period along with eight new Band tunes were officially released as a double album in 1975, but they were just a tiny fraction of the more than 100 tracks recorded during that period. The mystery surrounding those missing and unreleased tracks have long been speculated in articles and even books; subsequently, a few of the songs have been re-recorded on subsequent Dylan albums (especially on 1971’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2) and eventually found their way onto archival releases.
Now die-hard fans can rejoice now that the vaults to all the Basement recordings have been opened and are now collected in this latest installment of The Bootleg Series. Lavish doesn’t begin to describe this mammoth six-CD set (you’ll need a couple of days or a week to absorb all of this) that found Dylan exploring the roots of Americana music while ushering the arrival of the legendary Band prior to its masterful debut Music From Big Pink. To its credit, the music on this box is presented as is, warts and all without being ‘cleaned up’ (especially on CD 6): it’s as if the listener is right there in that garage-cum-basement with Dylan and the Band, hearing essentially the sounds of alt-country as it is today. Many of the songs that appeared in the original 1975 release are here, including several takes of each in some cases.
Upon listening to a majority of the tracks, the words ‘earthy,’ ‘gritty,’ and especially ‘soulful’ immediately come to mind. The magic of the performances comes from the fact that Dylan and the musicians were just playing informally and loose without the pressures and trappings of the studio — there’s even a sense of charm when Dylan cracks up at times during the performance of “See You Later Allen Ginsberg.” As the liner notes astutely point out, the musicians seemed immune from the psychedelia that was taking over the scene at the time as well as the ambitious studio techniques from the Beatles. Instead, Dylan and the Band were going back to music’s roots.
Obviously, the sounds of country/Americana dominate the performances, from “I’m in the Mood” and “Please Mrs. Henry,” to “Lo and Behold” and “Down on Me.” There are too many highlights to list, but the ones that standout include “One for the Road,” which sounds like a precursor to ’70s country rock; the soulful and heartfelt “I’m Alright”; the beautiful and yearning “Young But Daily Growing”; the spunky “Odds and Ends;” and the tender ballad “Four Strong Winds.” (Of course, hearing the multiple takes of “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released” provide very transcendent moments). There are a couple of interesting covers as well: from Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” Dylan also revisits “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a bluesy-like number and “It Ain’t Me Babe” as a somewhat of a soul tune.
Simply put, the eloquence and purity of the music in its unpolished and raw form is what really comes across on this landmark set. Of all the installments in The Bootleg Series, with the exception of the first four volumes, The Basement Tapes Complete may be the most important of all them, and a sure contender for a Grammy nod in the historical album category. As for that perennial four-decades-plus mystery to this chapter of Dylan’s career, consider the case now closed.