This review pertains only to the two-disc The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11. Sony Legacy Recordings is also releasing a six-disc deluxe Complete edition this week.
The reputation and mystique of The Basement Tapes sessions precedes this official release by nearly half a century. No other volume in Bob Dylan’s celebrated Bootleg Series can boast the same magnitude of anticipation. Sure, certain Dylanologists may have salivated over the pending release of a rare 1964 Halloween performance (Vol. 6) or leftovers from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions (Vol. 10), but no other artifact thus far in the Bootleg Series — save for maybe Dylan turning “Judas!” and “going electric” on the back half of The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (Vol. 4) — shoulders the same weight of both cultural significance and curiosity.
Much of the allure stems from the story behind The Basement Tapes themselves. In 1966, Dylan, then at the height of his popularity and creative powers, survived a dangerous motorcycle accident that left him with several broken vertebrae. He holed up the following year in rural eastern New York and invited members of his touring band, The Hawks, who, within a year’s time would begin their ascent into the rock and roll pantheon as The Band, to record demos with him. The sessions yielded rough recordings of well over 100 original songs, covers, and sketches, several of which subsequently became hits for The Band and popular contemporary acts like The Byrds, Manfred Mann, and Peter, Paul and Mary. As curiosity about these sessions germinated, bootleg recordings soon began to surface (most notably 1969’s Great White Wonder), which sparked demand for the eventual official release of beloved 1975 sampler The Basement Tapes. Nearly 50 years later, these sessions still capture public imagination as a rare glimpse of Dylan during both a personal and career sea change; a peek at one of the most talented and eclectic bands in rock history on the verge of breaking out on their own; and, in some eyes, the progenitor of both the Americana genre and the modern bootleg. In short, for many, The Basement Tapes sessions are the Dylan holy grail.
Like any archaeological expedition, someone had to lead this dig. Enter Jan Haust, who, under the guidance of Band member and original Basement Tapes sessions recorder Garth Hudson, painstakingly salvaged and restored 138 recordings, carefully chipping through the polish applied to the ’75 release and returning them to the warm, wide-open crackle of Hudson’s original demos. Even a cursory listen to old session favorites like “Odds and Ends” and “Crash on the Levee” quickly demonstrates how Haust’s efforts have recaptured the aural expanse of these musical landscapes — offering us a vista from a full window when we had previously had a porthole. For those who only wish to own a piece of the holy grail, the 38-track highlight reel of The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 still manages to put you in the basement of “Big Pink” for those storied sessions. Like the best of Dylan’s Bootleg Series, this collection documents, sheds light, and sparks the imagination.
The Basement Tapes Raw, like the original ’75 release, blends brilliant performances with pure curiosities. What’s remarkable, though, are how many beautiful, emotionally daunting moments came into being during these rather informal sessions. “One Too Many Mornings”, previously a near-whispered, softly strummed cut from 1964’s The Times They Are a-Changin’, transforms into a full-bodied moment of clarity with the deft touch of bassist Rick Danko’s vocal harmonies, Hudson’s floating organ, and Robbie Robertson’s warm, affirming guitar. Likewise, the glowing fingerprints of the individual Band members, especially pianist Richard Manuel’s vocals, are all over breathtaking, restored versions of “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released” — on the former, Dylan’s aching, fatherly voice intertwined with Manuel’s (daughterly?) falsetto to render the parental pain all the more palpable. Dylan’s singing is often a source of criticism and mockery, but here his vocals are able to carry several tracks on passion alone. Even on the musically and lyrically inchoate “I’m Not There (1956)”, Dylan, despite scrambling for lines, wills this story of a torn man (“Well, it’s too hard to stay here, and I don’t want to leave”) into aching existence purely through the conviction in his voice.
Also surviving the grueling restoration process is the pervading spirit of brotherhood and spontaneity that these sessions so richly embody. While we should be thankful for a cut as beautiful as the piano-driven, promise-breaking “Nothing Was Delivered”, listeners will be just as thrilled when an alternate take of “Lo and Behold!” almost collapses mid-song in laughter or when Dylan and harmonizing Band members square off in a breath-holding contest on the final word of each verse in the previously unreleased “All You Have to Do Is Dream”. On an early version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, the phrasing and chorus are already unmistakable, but does Dylan really sing, “Look here you bunch of basement noise” and “You ain’t no head of lettuce?” These idiosyncrasies may not make for instant classics, but they round out the experience of cramming into a basement with friends and making music together. In these moments, we get to witness the creative process along with all the joy, camaraderie, and goofiness that can accompany it.
The Basement Tapes sessions came at the outset of a new era for Dylan — a time when he would stop touring, remain largely secluded from the public eye, and attempt to cut virtually all ties with his career and persona from before the motorcycle accident. On the song “Goin’ to Acapulco”, a world-weary protagonist plans on “goin’ on the run” to a place where he is finally “goin’ to have some fun.” Judging by The Basement Tapes Raw, Dylan found his Acapulco with four Canadians in the basement of a pink house in rural New York. It’s not Mexico, but close enough.
Essential Tracks: “Tears of Rage”, “One Too Many Mornings”, and “I’m Not There (1956)”