Consider the irony: Bob Dylan and The Band’s so-called Basement Tapes (mostly recorded in Dylan’s Woodstock ‘Red Room’) stake a claim for being the first mass-produced 60s bootleg. Known as the Great White Wonder, many of the cuts didn’t see an official release until 1975, during which time the artists had revisited the most commercial tracks on Music From Big Pink, or in the case of The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo) on Self Portrait and Greatest Hits Vol II, leaving The Byrds and McGuinness Flint to mop up goodies from a crackly publishing demo. Now the majority of the sessions from Dylan and his Canadian chums arrive with a dire warning not to share this music, or the gods of Watermark will descend with tears of rage.
Available as a 139-track box set or in truncated form as a Raw best-of, the informality of the recordings that Levon Helm captured offers insight into the birth of heartland Americana. Mythic swathes of old blues, traditional ditties and down-home country from the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Clarence Williams are dotted about with Dylan originals, including the fire and brimstone of I Shall Be Released and This Wheel’s On Fire.
Since the accent seems to have been on wiping the slate clean after the infamous motorcycle prang that allegedly left Bob temporarily blind, there’s a knockabout atmosphere prevalent on Clothes Line Saga (a piss-take of Bobby Gentry’s Ode To Billy Joe) and a rich vein of innuendo running through Please, Mrs. Henry and Yea! Heavy And A Bottle of Bread.
In many ways, the most interesting covers are the Welsh mining lament Bells Of Rhymney and Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter, something Dylan could only just have heard. He treats it with a mixture of jollity and tongue-in-cheek scorn, suggesting that the other troubadour may have rattled his cage.
Necessarily lo-fi, one accepts the sonic limitations of cheap tape and the fact this material was never meant to be released. If your wallet allows you to eat this document in its entirety, you’re in for a long haul. But hell, some of it is genius – I’m Not There is one of Dylan’s finest vocal performances – and if this is your brand of orange juice, you ain’t goin’ nowhere./o:p