Bob Dylan and the Complete Basement Tapes [Review]

Dylan

On Nov. 4, Bob Dylan released the eleventh volume in his bootleg series, cataloging the mysterious Basement Tapes era in one complete set. While the raw version of the product only spans two discs, the full set is six, making for nearly 140 songs in chronological order. Given that the content is over six hours long combined, there is quite a lot of it for Dylan fans to sink their teeth into.

The Basement Tapes was released in June of 1975, marking the official release of a selection of songs from the era. This new release is the entirety of the sessions, or at least, everything that could be salvaged from the old reels. The Basement Tapes were incredibly important for a few key reasons: they defined what would later become ‘home recording,’ they captured Bob Dylan in a rare aura of joy and carelessness, and they became the most important and first bootleg of the twentieth century. Upon the official release of the content in 1975, it was hailed as one of the best rock records of the decade, setting the foundation for modernized home recording studios and adding a brand new element to the art: the ability for the artist to take production into their own hands.

The songs from the tapes were recorded in 1967, shortly after Dylan decided to retreat to Woodstock, New York in an effort to escape the public eye after a grueling world tour. Having recently gone electric, the legend had caused his core demographic to feel betrayed, pinning him as the ‘Judas’ of the industry. When Robbie Robertson and The Band found Big Pink in Woodstock, Dylan was thrilled by the notion of recording in a laid back, anti-corporate environment. He connected with The Band at this time, and they agreed to record a long series of home demos with Dylan in attempt to create a catalog that he could then sell to his record label for the lyrics. Essentially, he wanted to make the songs available for other bands to record, and having The Band aid him would allow him to create powerful demos. The songs, however, never made it that far. They took a very different, vastly more important route.

Bob Dylan’s Complete Basement Tapes is one of the most exceptional bootleg volumes he has released over the past two decades. The recordings act as an extension of the original 1975 album, which is wonderful. The original record was always scarce, only providing a surface level insight into the sessions. Even though the songs have been repeatedly bootlegged over the years with famous bootlegs like The Great White Wonder, these tracks were never given a studio treatment. Now, all of these tracks have been given that treatment, and they shine superbly.

From beginning to end, the performances on The Complete Basement Tapes are excellent. Dylan and The Band exhibit boundless carelessness, a breath of fresh air amidst the very serious records the musician was putting out in this period. Robbie Robertson’s guitar is like lightning, darting in and out of the tracks with extreme precision. Levon Helm continuously yodels in the backdrop of the songs, often causing Dylan to burst into laughter in the takes. In fact, a great deal of these takes consist of the band messing about together, having fun and spinning awkward webs of seemingly random lyrics.

Fans may be discouraged by the expansiveness of the record, or the way it reveals itself as a jaunt through the oddly bizarre, always peculiar, certainly abnormal mind of Bob Dylan. Those fans should not allow themselves to be swayed away from this collection. The songs are enjoyable as a result of their indifference, and perhaps most importantly, one must not forget the kind of songs that resulted from the Basement Tapes sessions. These abstract home recordings from that Woodstock basement brought along tracks like Quinn the Eskimo, Tears of Rage, This Wheel’s on Fire, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, and I Shall Be Released to name a few. It could even be debated that these excursions that lay on the cutting room floor for over forty years are good enough to stand on their own in the diverse era of 1960’s rock and roll. They certainly altered the landscape of it forever. One year later, The Band would remain in the home to record and release Music from Big Pink, a record that Eric Clapton would later refer to as one that changed his life. The Basement Tapes lit the fire so the rest of the era could carry the flame.

Bob Dylan’s eleventh volume into the bootleg series, the Complete Basement Tapes is a treat for fans of any musical genre. It is one of those records that remains poignant and everlasting without the need to be classified into a specific genre as a result of its all-encompassing influence and sound. Some key songs to stop by include I’m Your Teenage Prayer, Edge of the Ocean, I’m Not There, Please Mrs. Henry, and One for the Road. Yes, it is a long record at over six hours in length. It is worth the six hours, though, and listeners will find themselves spending even more time with it than that.

Review By Brett Stewart

Sources:
Rolling Stone
The Daily Beast
PBS
Photo Courtesy of Paul Townsend Flickr – Flickr 

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