Since its beginnings as part of the first notable rock bootleg, released in 1969 and known simply as Great White Wonder, the legend of Bob Dylan's recordings with his backing group formerly known as the Hawks in their rented pink house in West Saugerties has grown to become one of the most treasured tales in rock-n-roll folklore. One that continues to paint a sense of romanticism among rock fans in a way not unlike Laurel Canyon, where the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Byrds, and Frank Zappa lived and jammed.
"It was a different vibe for them up there," explains author Sid Griffin, formerly of the seminal Los Angeles alt-country outfit the Long Ryders, whose definitive book, Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band and the Basement Tapes, (Jawbone Press) has been updated and revised for 2014. "They were relaxing. The guys were getting up at a reasonable hour and having breakfast, doing all these things they never got to do as The Hawks and being on the road all those years. The context of where your situation is means everything, and for them it was living rooms and basements, which informed their writing. And between that and the countryside, you have this beautiful music that is The Basement Tapes."
Now, after nearly 20 years of requests from fans and Dylanologists the world over, the entirety of these storied sessions chronicled during the time Dylan was on the mend from a near-fatal motorcycle accident have finally been made commercially available as the 11th volume of the singer's acclaimed Bootleg Series collection. The deluxe edition of this set, at six discs and 139 tracks with extensive, insightful liner notes written by Griffin, is by far the most robust set put together for the series thus far, salvaging just about every usable recording from the tapes. Garth Hudson worked closely with Canadian music archivist and producer Jan Haust to restore the tapes to their finest quality yet. The holy grail of this collection, however, are the 30 tracks never before released commercially, on the black market or otherwise, including a first take on "Odds and Ends," loose renditions of the Carter Family's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and the blues standard "One Kind Favor," and an alternate version of "I Shall Be Released" that arguably rivals the official cut in every way. Also among the recently unearthed and rescued reels is a handful of pre-Big Pink material recorded in the "Red Room" of Dylan's home in Woodstock. To hear these sessions in their entirety like this really offers the listener a keen sense of the friendship and revelry that went down in and around the confines of the otherwise rural residential nature of the men's surroundings.
"An old-timer, a dealer/sculptor I knew growing up along the Katterskill Creek, told of an August day when all six of them went for a swim at Fawn's Leap [a legendary swimming hole] to escape the heat of the basement and the trappings of West Saugerties," recounts Simone Felice, whose work as both a solo artist and a member of the Felice Brothers has established him as one of the biggest breakouts from the Catskill region in recent memory. "I just like to think of them there in the dappled summer light, diving in cut-off jeans, laughing and getting high, young and relatively free—when it was about the music and the hushed sanctuary of the woods, back when they were all still friends."
English alt-rock stalwart Robyn Hitchcock, who released an album of Dylan covers in 2002 called Robyn Sings and has been playing a slew of songs from The Basement Tapes on the road in recent months, also attributes the dichotomy between the distinct styles of Dylan and The Band as separate entities uniting as one to the magic of the Tapes as well. "There's this great warmth to The Band," he explains. "And Dylan seems generally hard to please as a person. His songs are always complaining about something. He's a bit of a kvetch, if you know the Yiddish term, but a brilliant one. But the stuff he did with The Band, it seems more content to just live. The music feels untreated, like food that's not been filled with monosodium glutamate or high-fructose corn syrup."