If you thought the heavily doctored 1975 double-LP titled The Basement Tapes fully represented the fabled 1967 sessions by Bob Dylan and the band that became The Band, then you seriously need to indulge in this newest archival release from Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series. This is where you hear how elemental, joyous and richly revealing this music really was.
The Basement Tapes was the blanket title given to the roughly 100 songs Dylan cut in upstate New York with his then-touring band The Hawks (which, the following year, would become The Band). At the time, Dylan was recovering from a near fatal motorcycle crash, although historians have regularly theorized the songwriter was also seeking refuge from his skyrocketing fame.
Available in two and six disc sets (the latter was used for this review), The Basement Tapes Complete uses covers of root music staples by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker and the like (a stark reading of the Bruce Phillips classic Rock Salt and Nails is especially striking) as icebreakers for a wealth of Dylan originals.
The fidelity is far from the varnished completeness of the ’75 album. This set reverts to original reel-to-reel recordings made essentially as demos by Band keyboardist Garth Hudson. As such, we hear such forgotten gems as Tiny Montgomery, Million Dollar Bash and Lo and Behold evolve through multiple takes. Throughout, Dylan performs with his guard way, way down.
But The Basement Tapes Complete is perhaps even more revelatory in how it outlines the birth of The Band. The initial discs find Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Hudson approaching Dylan’s new tunes with caution. Then we get to a glorious recasting of One Too Many Mornings that Dylan and Manuel perform as a gorgeously battered duet.
There are also various takes of This Wheel’s on Fire and Tears of Rage – co-written by Danko and Manuel respectively, but sung here by Dylan – that would eventually find a place on The Band’s seminal 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. Both songs are ripe with the intuitive but mischievous Americana spirit that would guide the group through much of the decade to come.
Not everything here is grade A stuff. There’s a Delta blues revision of Blowin’ in the Wind that possibly set the stage for the stylistic character assassination of his own songs that Dylan still engages in during concerts today, along with a wheezy reading of the pop standard A Fool Such As I. Both show just deep into the stylistic abyss The Basements Tapes Complete reaches.