In the extra DVD disc of Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions album Springsteen speaks about the difference between playing music making music. He is in his home studio with that carnival band of playing he used for that project. The brass are out in the hallway. It is this loose jam of music making that brings something unique to the art. Springsteen call that difference - soul! I have no idea how much Bob Dylan’s legendary Basement Tapes influenced those Seeger Sessions but you really don’t need to contrive in order to connect them.
If you are looking for meticulous playing, perfect mixes and pristine sound do not go anywhere near the Basement Tapes Complete, the eleventh of Bob Dylan’s official Bootleg Series. However, if you are looking for soul then listen no further. The perfect record this is not but for quaintness, wonder, genius and soul it is hard to find anything better.
Let me honest 1975’s The Basement Tapes is not one of my most worn out Bob Dylan records. The period between Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks not one of my most fixated Dylan eras. The idea of 139 tracks of Basement Tapes Complete had me a little underwhelmed. At least there was a 2 disc version that might would allow me to keep my Dylan collection up to date and give me a chance for a quick listen.
In the end I decided to “complete, complete, complete” as an old saying goes between me and my mate Geoff. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t splash out £100. No sir, I used the residue of October’s birthday money to do the download version! I figured that for an extra 20 quid I would have an extra 100 songs and that some of them might be worth the added investment.
Well, my early listens were as I had expected. With 139 songs it is inevitable that to get a quick overall picture of 139 songs I would initially skip and sample. My immediate response was to wonder what all the fuss has been about for 47 years. However, as the week went on and the album got time to settle and be given a longer slower digestion I have come to recognise the wonder of this phenomenal thing.
In some ways The Basement Tapes are a phenomenal happening as much as they are a 6 disc CD album. For me a week of listening has allowed me to come to love the actual songs as much as I have come to be fascinated by the event. We’ll come to those songs in a moment. First, let us come to terms with the piece of rock history we are listening to. Dylan has been the amphetamine pumped pioneer of philosophical and politic rock music for a couple of years, moving from his acoustic civil rights folk protest to rocked up electrified voice of the 60’s zeitgeist. Suddenly, he’s gone. Rumours of a debilitating motor cycle crash but little else for 18 months. In 60’s music that was unheard of.
This is the music he made in that down time. It is like a refreshing paddle in the river of some scenic valley after having surfed the highest crashing waves of a stormy sea. The voice elf a generation limits his singing to a few rooms in upper New York State’s countryside and just plays his music for its own sake. Though never intended for release one wonders why Garth Hudson recorded so much. Yet, the feel is very much, jamming for fun. It is a unique window into the life and muse of one of rock’s iconic figures. That its legend and the music The band produced after it became the next musical shift in rock history is also a fascination. These tapes are what the Beatles were hoping to get at in Let It Be. Country rock and American are birthed here with Bob Dylan’s voice and songs and the utter genius of The Band’s musicianship.
As I said, it took a few listens, but once my ears acclimatised to the at times smirky sound, I have come to utterly love the sound and vibe of this massive collection. We are back to Springsteen’s surmise. What you hear are brilliant musicians making music as they go, finding grooves and sounds to embellish old songs from the past and create new songs, some of which never had a future until this release (officially anyway!)
The completely reworked groove of Blowing In The Wind; the Johnny Cash fixation that includes Folsom Prison Blues and Balshazzer; the Irish folk of The Auld Triangle; The quirky surprise of the catchier than Dylan usually is Baby, Won’t You Be My Baby; and of course I am drawn to the spirituals, People Get Ready, Waltzing With Sin, Satisfied Mind that later turns up on Saved and the most interesting of all for me Sign Of The Cross.
Sign Of The Cross is the biggest song here so far officially unreleased. It needs a blog in itself but it highlights that alongside the fun loving music making, the humour, the covers and the songs written for others that Dylan is soul searching in the middle of this relaxation. It could be that this sign of the cross worries the jewish Dylan himself that he is in some ways a Messiah waiting to get crucified but more intriguing for me the personal journey of soul that led him to the Christian conversion of 1979 has started already. This jewish boy is emerging himself in the New as well as the Old Testament and here it leads to this inspired improvised testimony time. Utterly fascinating like this entire Bootleg Series edition!