The Basement Tapes

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1975

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


It is pretty well-known that the series of recordings that Bob Dylan made with The Band at “Big Pink” in 1967 became the first commercially successful bootleg (under the name Great White Wonder).

It is also well-known to long-time readers of the Daily Vault that I have gained a bit of a, ah, reputation for taking “classic” albums and skewering them like they were so much meat on the barbecue. Fans of The Beatles (White Album) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band usually wash their mouths out after saying my name.

So there had to be some trepidation among people (not the least including some DV panel members) when they heard who was scheduled to review The Basement Tapes, the legitimate (if incomplete) 1975 release credited to both Bob Dylan and The Band. I can hear the comments now: “Oh, God, please don’t tell me he’s going to slander a masterpiece!”

Well… let’s just say there’s enough to praise on this set, but it’s far from perfect.

Some critics have lambasted this release because, it is said, The Band raised their profile by re-recording backing tracks to four songs and increasing themselves in the mix. To that, I say: good.

You see, for all of the passion that Dylan brought to his songwriting, his style of playing in general has to be called unstructured, as he’s not afraid to cut into a bridge or extend a verse when the whim hit him during performances. I’ve heard it time and time again over the Dylan albums I’ve listened to. What The Band gave him was structure and form, something that Dylan’s music welcomed and embraced. Tracks like “Apple Suckling Tree,” “Ain’t No More Cane,” “Nothing Was Delivered” and “Yazoo Street Scandal” are proof positive of how well the partnership worked – to the point that I would go out on a limb and say that Dylan could have easily become the front man for The Band had he so chosen.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

While Rick Danko and crew were still waiting to stamp their name on the music scene themselves as a band, the music on The Basement Tapes shows they had nearly perfected their own sound by 1967. Listening to tracks such as “Tears Of Rage,” “Too Much Of Nothing” and “Crash On The Levee” that all have a strong Dylan presence, the listener can hear the birth cries that would become Music From Big Pink, and it’s quite enjoyable. Likewise, the songs that put The Band right at the forefront, such as “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and “Ruben Remus” feel like forgotten gems that are welcomed back to the spotlight.

So far, so good, right? Well, this isn’t to say that The Basement Tapes is flawless; indeed, there are several glaring ones throughout the 24 tracks of this release. (Diehard fans of Dylan or The Band could claim the release itself was flawed for leaving off performances like “Quinn The Eskimo,” but there are plenty of bootleg sets out there containing the “complete” set of recordings. One day, I’ll get around to listening to my copy of A Tree With Leaves.)

As stated before, when Dylan allows himself to become part of The Band, the results are often spectacular. When Dylan tries to just be Dylan and The Band kind of go along for the ride, things go south real quick. Tracks like “Million Dollar Bash,” “Please Mrs. Henry” and the absolutely abysmal “Clothes Line Saga” are prime examples of why some songs don’t need to leave the cutting room floor. Most notably, when Dylan chooses to literally speak his vocals (not combine them into his infamous sing/speak style), the results become nearly unlistenable.

Some songs reach a middle ground where they’re not bad, but they’re nothing worth hanging in the musical version of the Louvre, either. I’d love to say that tracks like “Odds & Ends,” “Lo And Behold,” “Tiny Montgomery” and “Goin’ To Acupulco” were phenomenal… but they seemed a little too laid-back in performance (or, in the case of “Tiny Montgomery,” vocal delivery) to rise above being merely mediocre, though not unpleasant to listen to.

After repeated listens to The Basement Tapes, I do admit that the set needs to grow a bit on the listener, and the first half of the collection tends to be the hardest to get through in terms of quality, despite having the two best songs (“Apple Suckling Tree” and “Tears Of Rage.”) And, while one can question why a set of eight-year-old music was released when it was, I can actually see the purpose (besides finally capitalizing on the bootleg market by improving on their own product.) This set does capture an interesting musical portrait of a leader of his genre (Dylan) becoming a strong mentor (in this case, to The Band), which allowed them to grow musically without mimicking the mentor. The leader, in turn, gets the chance to grow as a songwriter and, at times, as merely a spoke in a band’s collective wheel – something that, I believe, benefited Dylan in the long run.

Long story short, don’t expect this cynic to proclaim The Basement Tapes to be a masterpiece… but put away your tar and feathers. While there are weak moments in the collection, it turns out to be surprisingly pleasing to fans of both Dylan and The Band.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.