Long considered the single most revered recordings ever made, Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes still retain their legendary status nearly fifty years after those sessions concluded in the basement of a rented house in upstate New York. Originally made public through the circulation of the first bootleg offerings ever made, the so-called Great White Wonder only heightened the curiosity about the surrogate sessions that took place while Dylan was still in seclusion following his motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. Rumors and speculation added to the mystique, and the fact that these collaborations yielded songs that would later become seminal standards and minted material for outside acts fuelled the fascination even further.
The public got its first authorized hearing of the album in 1975 when Columba officially released a two disc set bearing sixteen tracks from the original sessions and eight added songs later recorded by the Band. However, considering the fact that there rumored to be over 100 tracks yet to be heard, collectors and completists naturally clamored for more. So now, some four decades later, their wish has been fulfilled with this latest entry in the Dylan Bootleg series of archival recordings, a six disc set that offers every salvageable song from the basement of Big Pink, all newly restored from the original tapes. The quality is still relatively primitive — these were mostly impromptu home recordings after all — and those weaned on today’s technology may be disappointed at the lack of fidelity and the un-embellished sound.
So too, anyone under the impression that this was strictly a laboratory for hatching new material may be somewhat befuddled by the predominance of cover songs, many of them traditional standards and county classics. Still, the historical connection to Dylan’s efforts that would soon follow — John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait in particular — is readily apparent and foresees Dylan’s humble yet heady attempts to redefine Americana. Likewise, the first sketches of songs that would later buttress both Dylan and the Band’s songbook — “Tears of Rage,” “Nothing Was Delivered,” “I Shall Be Released,” You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” “Million Dollar Bash,” “Lo and Behold!” and the like — offer a treasure trove of revelation, making the anticipation for acquisition well worth the wait.
Ultimately, the relatively steep cost for the entire six-disc set might discourage some and perhaps persuade them to opt for the condensed two disc version which culls highlights and eliminates the excess. Yet, given the benefit of an accompanying book of photos and the lavish packaging that’s tossed into the mix, the complete package is still the optimum buy. Besides, why wonder about what went on in those secretive sessions when the answers are now fully and finally unearthed?
– Lee Zimmerman