By 1967, Bob Dylan must have been a shell shocked young man: seven albums in seven years, the tours, going electric, amphetamines and the motorcycle crash. To escape the suffocation, Dylan retreated to Woodstock, N.Y., with his family, but he was still making music. Sessions with The Hawks (soon to be renamed The Band), who had also moved to the area, were held in the basement of their house, Big Pink.
According to Dylan, the songs laid down were not for commercial consumption -- at least not on one of his own records -- but demos to farm out to other artists. "You Ain't Going Nowhere" and "Nothing Was Delivered" went to the Byrds; Flatt and Scruggs cut "Crash On The Levee"; Manfred Mann took "Quinn the Eskimo"; and The Band claimed others.
But as serious collectors know, the recordings began to leak out. In 1969, copies of "The Great White Wonder" began to appear. Considered one of the first bootlegs of a significant artist, it not only contained songs cut in Big Pink's basement, but sessions from a Minnesota Hotel recorded in 1961 and a live track from The Johnny Cash Show.
Now we have the entire picture (or at least what could be salvaged from the tapes): "The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete." It's six CDs that provide an intimate look at Dylan in the studio.
It's fly on the wall stuff here. Musicians messing around, having fun with words and music, on a journey to find The Song. Bob is loose, carefree and laid back.
And while Dylan would lead some incredible musicians in the coming years, he would never find a bond like he did with The Band. Let's not forget, even in 1967, they were already hardened veterans of the bar circuit. As adroit players and harmonisers, they could easily follow Dylan through the blues, folk and country covers that kick off the set and easily segue into these newly penned compositions.
There are romps through the back catalog of Johnny Cash and Johnny Lee Hooker, beautiful songs of heartbreak and defeat and the kind of word salad surgery only Zimmy can pull off.
As David Fricke recently wrote in Rolling Stone, it's the greatest album Bob Dylan never intended to make.
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