As anyone with more than a passing interest in Bob Dylan has known for years, the legendary Basement Tapes still had many secrets to reveal. The source of the first rock and roll bootleg, the goldmine of demos that gave The Byrds You Ain't Goin' Nowhere and Manfred Mann Quinn The Eskimo, plus the place where The Hawks developed their signature sound, and became The Band. Tears Of Rage, I Shall Be Released, This Wheel's On Fire, they all came out of these lazy days in Upstate New York.
So did Johnny Todd, Get Your Rocks Off, Baby, Won't You Be My Baby, and many more you probably haven't heard of, unless you were one of those still taking part in the underground economy that is Dylan boots. For years now, a few hours of tape has been circulating with loads and loads more takes of songs featuring Dylan and The Band-to-be in sloppy glory, from low-fi, two-channel recordings, the way Garth Hudson (Band organist and assigned engineer archivist) recorded them back in 1967. The aim was to get down a bunch of new Dylan songs as demos he could sell to other artists. He was making a fortune doing just that back in the 60's, and since he wasn't touring (motorcycle injury) and wasn't making an album (same), the cash flow certainly would have been driving this plan. But also, he was remaking his music, digging back in the raw and wild sound of American (and Canadian) folk music, basically inventing the roots or Americana genre with the help of his Ontario confederates (and later, Levon Helm).
There is a six-CD set of every last worthy take Hudson has managed to save over the years, as the tapes were left in his possession. I can assure you it is on my Christmas list, currently sitting at the $125 - $140 range in stores. This version is two discs, the highlights we are told. It should be noted and stressed that these are not the Basement Tapes as sold to us in 1975. For that set, Robbie Robertson was put in charge, and he polished up the whole thing, adding lots of new overdubs, remixing, and even adding Band-only songs from other sessions. This time, we get the originals, as is, as was. All that's been done is the usual cleaning job on ancient tape, what they could salvage. There are some interrupted takes, some laughing, some distortion and buried instruments, but that's all part of the glory.
There's a charm to the muffled recordings, and some even claim they find a certain brilliance in the job Hudson managed to do. I won't go that far, as there are plenty of other examples of amazing recordings done in bootleg situations. This is for history's sake, and the work done was stellar. Dylan was knocking off lyrics upstairs on the typewriter, and recording them without polish, so sometimes the results are stunning given the limits, other times you know they could (and occasionally would) be polished up. The two versions of You Ain't Goin' Nowhere found here show that in spades, the first almost gibberish, and the second the template of the beloved classic it has become.
There are plenty of interesting 'new' songs for us here, including a blues version of Blowin' In The Wind, recorded who knows why, probably just a lark. 900 Miles From Home seems to be a mis-remembered run-through of Bobby Bare's hit 500 Miles, and I'm Alright is a R&B number that shows all the participants were into Curtis Mayfield. Then there is the important job of returning the Robertson-produced 1975 versions back into the original versions. Of particular note is Tears Of Rage. When it came out in 1975, Robertson had added more harmonies. Here we find Richard Manuel alone, singing an incredible part alongside Dylan. It's live, probably barely rehearsed and the single-best vocal take of Manuel's storied career.
Elsewhere, it's Dylan and The Band being themselves, expert musicians, singers and writers with the pressure off, the creativity soaring. It's usually not perfect, but the combination of near-perfection and spontaneous creation is a wonder to hear, in its original form. Two CD, that's great, but its only whetted my appetite for all the rest.