“Finally!” is the collective cry from Bob Dylan fanatics all over the world: the infamous basement tapes, the lo-fi demo recordings of Dylan and the Band banging away in an upstate New York basement, are finally seeing release in their pure, unadulterated form under the title The Basement Tapes Raw.
It’s been a long time coming: these tapes were some of the first to be bootlegged and over the years they’ve dripped out in piecemeal fashion In 1975, a handful of these songs were remixed, overdubbed and generally reworked for the double LP The Basement Tapes. Sometimes they popped up in box sets, previous Bootleg Series releases and even on a soundtrack.
This release puts basically all of what’s still usable out in a lavish box set, with a smaller two-CD set for the average person who thinks dropping about $100 for a bunch of demos is a crazy idea. It’s nice to finally, get all of these historic tracks all in one place, all of them sounding as good as possible.
What this album does best is show how creative Dylan was in 1967 and where the seeds of that creativity came from. Mixed in among his songs are covers and adaptations of traditional songs, everything from Johnny Cash to old Irish sea shanties. It’s interesting to hear the group jamming away on old favourites, not to mention on early Dylan: their swaggering version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a highlight of this set.
Still, the then-new songs are the big draw here. For a time that year, Dylan was on a hell of a writing streak, banging out great songs on a seemingly daily basis: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” and “I Shall Be Released,” not to mention a few other songs everyone’s heard two or three different versions of. Hearing these in their original form, all in a row, is stunning.
But the smaller songs steal the spotlight here. “Dress It Up,” “Better Have It All,” and “Baby, Won’t You Be My Baby” have the loose, fun vibe of a late-night jam session, while the rough, organ-drenched version of “Goin’ to Acapulco” drips emotion in a way making the 1975 Basement Tapes version sound sterile.
Indeed, this 2-CD set is not a recreation of the 1975 record. They share a number of the same songs, but here are restored to their stripped down demo roots (it’s the Raw Basement Tapes, get it?). But primarily this is a Dylan record that The Band plays on, not a balanced look at both artists. The original LP put both artists on the bill, with early Band songs like “Ferdinand the Imposter,” “Orange Juice Blues,” “Ruben Remus,” and “Katie’s Been Gone” getting equal footing with Dylan’s songs. It’s not the case here: it’s all Dylan, even on the six-CD set.
This might be expected from a Bob Dylan album, but depending on how you feel about the original sessions, it can also feel a little misleading. How much did these two forces influence the other? Was The Band simply a vehicle for Dylan’s muse? By omitting their contributions, both sets downplay their importance at this stage of Dylan’s career in a way their original LP or the bootlegs never did.
At the same time, the two-CD set also shows a lack of depth. A staggering number of these performances have been previously released in this exact form. I don’t mean in an overdubbed, re-recorded, or even different performance, but these exact, raw recordings. The liners say three songs have been previously released: “Minstrel Boy,” on last year’s Bootleg Series (see our review here), “Santa Fe” on the first Bootleg Series and “I’m Not There” on a movie soundtrack.
A couple of others are familiar, too. “Quinn the Eskimo” was on both the Biograph set and the Essential Bob Dylan compilation while “I Shall Be Released” showed up on the first Bootleg Series. Both are now in stereo and sound a lot cleaner, but I’m not sure if they’re different takes. If you’re the kind of Dylan fan interested in a set like this, chances are you already own one or two of those albums. Completists beware!
Also, it’s worth keeping in mind the original intent of these recordings. Unlike pervious volumes of The Bootleg Series, these aren’t album outtakes or live performances. They’re demos and rough ones at that. Songs end unexpectedly, the tape wobbles and the sound is decidedly low fidelity. They’ve been sonically cleaned up and sound a lot better than they did on bootlegs, but they’re still pretty rough at times.
Which makes it a little hard to compare to the other volumes of this series. This doesn’t shine a light on an underappreciated era (like Another Self Portrait) or documents a historic live show (like Volume Four: Live 1966 did – see our review here). It’s more a best-of for a period that’s been heavily bootlegged and covered at length, but never given a proper official release. It’s essential stuff for Dylan fanatics who probably already have this stuff on bootlegs.
So what about the rest of us? People who are casual Dylan fans or know the tapes more by reputation than by content? It makes this release a little trickier to recommend. As a whole, the music is pretty good, even a little better than I expected. I think even casual fans will find a lot to enjoy here: the music’s rough and ready, influential in ways still unfolding today. The back-to-basics approach inspired everything from The Grateful Dead to the alt-country movement.
But while The Basement Tapes Raw is a good listen, it’s not as explosive or revelatory as you’d expect. It’s original impact came from the context of it’s times: Dylan had vanished and returned as a country crooner, while other artists were performing all of these songs they’d never heard him sing. In the nearly 50 years since, we more or less have heard these songs by now. It’s nice to have all these songs in one place (officially, anyway), but it won’t change minds the way last year’s Bootleg Series volume did.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.