In terms of rock n roll myths and legends The Basement Tapes is one of the most fascinating. A songwriter unwillingly held up as a spokesman for a generation, and seemingly close to burning out in 1966, has a motorcycle accident and retreats to the rustic surrounds of upstate New York where he holes up with The Band and starts having regular writing, jamming and recording sessions in a house dubbed The Big Pink. A plethora of music was recorded with only a fraction frustratingly released as a double LP in the 70s. Now, with most of the original analog tapes rediscovered The Band’s Garth Hudson and others have rescued and restored 138 songs for the Complete release, 38 of which appear on Raw, the selected highlights version.
Apart from eight ‘restored versions’ what we get here is a selection of alternate takes, songs sans overdubs and previously unreleased songs. The much improved sound quality of the songs is a revelation. It still sounds lo-fi but there’s a warmth and balance to the music that shows Hudson ensured he got the best possible sound from that room all those years ago. The other striking factor is the performances captured, from well-known songs like Fulsom Prison Blues, I Shall Be Released and This Wheel’s On Fire to obscure gems. The instrumentation ranges from sparse to richly textured with organ and all manner of acoustic instruments. The music sounds like a release as well as an indulgence, honouring the past and strengthening the template for all the roots music that was to come.
this review was first published in The Music