Guffaws spill from the speakers when Bob Dylan rolls through a boogie-slanted spin on Bo Diddley’s “Bring It To Jerome,” one of the last tracks on The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol 11 (Columbia/Legacy). As on the two takes of “The Spanish Song” that follow (which bring a cartoonish Mexican vibe and a big dash of silliness to a performance that poaches the melody of Dylan’s 1964 “To Ramona” while foreshadowing his vocals on 1976’s “Romance In Durango”) informality not only reigns, it defines every last howl, caw and wheeze of this magical music.
Released as a comprehensive six-disc box set, these mythologized 1967 sessions are all about spontaneity and experimentation. And guess what? In some ways that gives them a jazz demeanor. By putting a personal spin on a slew of traditional country, folk and blues ditties as well as some of the singer’s most striking originals ever, he and his sidekicks (you know them now as The Band) bring an improvised feel to their work – although the use of that last word is off a bit, because the most vivid of these 140 songs sound a lot like play.
A blast of background: Dylan spent a chunk of ’66 galloping through a raucous series of live dates with his backup band, once known as the Hawks and comprised of guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm and organist Garth Hudson. Their approach had a manic tilt, and when it ended, a major exhale was needed. The beleaguered pop star left his Manhattan digs for a Catskills artist burgh two hours above town with privacy and composure on his mind.
Mending after a motorcycle crash on the windy roads of Woodstock, the singer’s creative itch exploded anew. The band was summoned north, and afternoon gatherings commenced. Recording at chez Dylan as well as a pair of rental houses (including the now-famous “Big Pink”), the mania was replaced by a more measured approach that perhaps reflected the group’s leafy surroundings.
Messing around with ancient numbers from far-flung points of the American canon, they rolled-tape on everything from Ian Tyson jewels to “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw” to nuggets by the two Hanks (Williams and Snow) to Curtis Mayfield’s gospel pop and even “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” As the group got its footing, schmaltz by the Fleetwoods found a nesting place near Brendan Behan’s poesy. The trajectory was scattershot, but the run-throughs accumulated – including a bounty of self-penned items such as “Nothing Was Delivered” and “Million Dollar Bash” that were by turns plaintive and droll. Ultimately their willful nonchalance forged a bounty of profound performances.
After years of incomplete bootlegs and a 1975 Columbia compilation foreshadowing the music’s ad-hoc eloquence, hearing this trove of demos and remnants united not only bolsters the notion of sessions’ importance but enhances its entertainment value. Its arrival in full bloom is like Dorothy throwing back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz; everything becomes a bit clearer. Dotted lines can be sniffed out between the lingo of “The Auld Triangle” or “Bonnie Ship the Diamond” and Dylan’s surreal “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.” The giddy esprit that is the essence of “Kicking My Dog Around” bleeds into rock ‘n’ roll frolic of “Odds and Ends.” Those aren’t the only examples; as the tracks unpack themselves and their breadth bubbles up, formal disparities start demonstrating kinship.
Dylan zealots have already been tickled by “Please, Mrs. Henry,” “Open The Door, Homer” and other songs long associated with The Basement Tapes. On Complete – which is sonically refined and chronologically ordered – a whopping 33 previously unissued tracks buoy the narrative, contextualizing the arcs that swoop through the set. As each song dusts itself off, it’s hard not to recall a Robertson quote citing weed as a key ingredient – created during carefree afternoons, fueled by insouciance and seasoned by tomfoolery. Always meant to be heard by industry ears only (the originals first saw life as fodder for Dylan’s publishing coffers), most of the tracks boast a candor that upends the conventions usually in place when a star of this rank makes a public presentation. Their charm comes from an utter lack of artifice; the clubhouse door has been left open and yeah, it’s okay to peek in. Somewhere along the line, near the middle of “Hallelujah, I’ve Just Been Moved” perhaps, or during the last gasp of “Wild Wolf,” it becomes clear: Big Pink was coolest the man cave ever.