Recording of January 2015: The Basement Tapes Complete

Bob Dylan and the Band: The Bootleg Series Vol.11: The Basement Tapes Complete
Columbia/Legacy 88875016122 (6 CDs). 2014. Garth Hudson, orig. eng., tape restoration; Jeff Rosen, Steve Berkowitz, reissue prods.; Jan Haust, reissue prod., tape restoration; Peter J. Moore, tape restoration, remastering; Mark Wilder, prod., add'l. mastering. A-D? TT: 6:27:56
Music *****
Sonics ***

The Basement Tapes are, as musician and archivist Sid Griffin writes in the liner notes, a kind of Rosetta Stone codifying the interface of myths, folktales, and song stories that inform the restless spirit of Bob Dylan's work. All the ingredients of American folklore, from blues and gospel to country, R&B, and rock'n'roll, went into this home brew distilled in the Catskill Mountains by Dylan and the Band over the course of these sessions.

Some of this music—recorded in 1967 by Garth Hudson on two-track, ¼" analog tape—has appeared before: a collection of demos that led to hits like Manfred Mann's "Mighty Quinn," and several songs that appeared on the Band's Music from Big Pink; a series of muddy-sounding, unauthorized dubs, beginning with The Great White Wonder; and the 1975 commercial release of The Basement Tapes, mixed down from stereo to mono, with some instrumental and vocal parts rerecorded by producer Robbie Robertson. Greil Marcus wrote the liner notes for the '75 version as well as a book, Invisible Empire, about the Basement Tapes. Marcus's interpretations of the signs gleaned from the murky depths of these cassette dubs enlarges the scope of the tapes by linking them with another cornerstone of American folk history, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Now we finally get an unobstructed view of what Marcus marveled at: the sound of a great American songwriter emerging into maturity. The Basement Tapes marks the end of Dylan the enfant terrible of the 1960s, and the emergence of the calm, oracular sage of the 1970s.

The Bootleg Series Vol.11 is the complete view of this music. Jan Haust and Hudson reconstructed it from a variety of sources, digitizing and remixing it back to the original stereo. Peter J. Moore's remastering recaptured the spirit of the sessions, warts and all—a torrent of restored and unfiltered information. The sound levels are unabashedly uneven; there are alternate takes, false starts, unfinished songs; and disc 6 is a campfire stew that only the most committed will obsess over.

There's also a two-CD highlights set. It's tempting to say it's for those who want to go, as Dylan put it in the liner notes to John Wesley Harding, "just far enough so's we can say that we've been there." But this version cuts to the most important songs, and Dylan's remarkably expressive manner of singing them. His voice sounds better than on any previous release of this music, alternately bemused and haunted, and his interaction with the Band—particular with the spirited harmony vocals and Hudson's otherworldly organ playing—is a spiritual exchange of the highest order.

On the chronologically organized complete version we hear Dylan and the Band feeling their way through traditional material and some new songs, before striking a mortal groove roughly halfway through with a series of Dylan classics: "Million Dollar Bash," "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread," "I'm Not There," "Please Mrs. Henry," "Crash on the Levee," "Lo and Behold!," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "I Shall Be Released," "This Wheel's On Fire," "Too Much of Nothing," "Tears of Rage," "Quinn the Eskimo," "Open the Door, Homer," "Nothing Was Delivered," "Sign on the Cross," "Odds and Ends," "Get Your Rocks Off," and "Clothes Line Saga."

This is a difficult album to rate sonically. In restoring it to its original state, Haust and Moore have presented us with a deliberately rough-hewn product. But the painstaking effort to re-create the sessions as they happened, with the best-recorded versions of Dylan's vocals ever issued, is a work of restorative art in its own right, showing us this music without the masks it has paraded behind over the years.

So many of these songs have become part of our cultural history through numerous covers that it's become commonplace to call The Basement Tapes the forerunner of Americana. But just as Dylan didn't "invent" folk rock, the last thing he wanted was to create a new record-industry brand. He was working toward an opposite goal: to return to a place where music was transmitted from person to person rather than manufactured by an entertainment industry looking to mass market its product. The Basement Tapes is a shot across the bow of the record business: Dylan making music for its own sake and for his own purposes. This profoundly revolutionary concept—that an artist didn't need the intermediaries of A&R and production teams to produce the work—had its greatest impact as an idea, an approach to artistic freedom that would inspire the entire DIY movement of the 1970s and beyond.—John Swenson

jimtavegia's picture

That insightful comment does make one wonder if artists were left to their own devices what presentations we might have received without the "guidance" of the labels. He who pays does get to decide.