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The New Basement Tapes – Linking The Old And The New

The New Basement Tapes is a group of musicians brought together by T Bone Burnett to write music to Bob Dylan lyric’s created during the Basement Tapes era. To fully understand the new, we start with the story of the old.

The Basement Tapes is Bob Dylan’s sixteenth recording, released in 1975. Its genesis came in the late spring of 1967 when Dylan began recording new songs and traditional roots music with The Hawks who were his backing band for the 1965–66 tour. The Hawks consisted of Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko who would later become known as The Band. Exhausted from the tour, The Hawks (minus Helm who had left earlier) rented a house outside of Woodstock, New York that became known as Big Pink.

In July of 1966 Dylan had a motorcycle accident in which he experienced cracked vertebrae and a mild concussion. He began a convalescence at his home in Woodstock he had dubbed Hi Lo Ha. It was in the Red Room of this house where recording for The Basement Tapes began one year later, but was soon moved to Big Pink when it became evident that the activity interfered with the domestic life of Dylan, his wife, and their two children. Meanwhile, in the basement of Big Pink, Garth Hudson had set up two stereo mixers on loan from Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, and a set of microphones borrowed from Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The Basement Tapes was typified by both traditional tunes and new compositions. Once Dylan had left his Woody Guthrie beginnings and became known for incorporating new avant-garde ideas into popular culture, he became weary of the dandified belligerently modern sound and returned to a rootsy sparse band sound that would anticipate the genre later known as Americana. To bring that band sound about, Dylan would practice traditional covers and then go play them with The Hawks. It was a folkie kind of music, who according to Robbie Robertson “was still very questionable to us – it wasn’t the train we came in on”. It was in the linking of the new compositions and the old covers that Dylan re-engaged with traditional American music.

In much that same way that Billy Bragg and Wilco took old Woody Guthrie lyrics and put them to music for the Mermaid Avenue album, T Bone Burnett and The New Basement Tapes used Bob Dylan lyrics written at Big Pink and Hi Lo Ha to create the songs for the recording Lost On The River. Dylan and his band ultimately formed into a collective for the purpose of writing and recording, and The New Basement Tapes has held true to that process. While Dylan, Robertson, Danko, Hudson and Manuel took months for the original Basement Tapes to run its course, this new configuration of James, Mumford, Giddens, Goldsmith, and Costello spent only two weeks in the studio.

It is an amazing, and exceptionally suitable, pool of talent that T Bone Burnett pulled together for Lost On The River. Jim James, the leader of My Morning Jacket, has a voice, guitar style, and writing ability that lend well to bringing out the Dylan in the lyrics while moving the song itself to a fresh indie inspired place. Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford has a dolefully wry sensibility that is an apt attribute in his treatment of Dylan’s lyrics and place the songs close to the original Basement style while conveying new musical shades all his own. Rhiannan Giddens of The Carolina Chocolate Drops lends an almost spiritual quality to the project, soulfully singing lead vocals when in front, and providing soaring harmonies when in a support role. Taylor Goldsmith, one of the two brothers in the band Dawes, uses his signature vocal styling to bring a modern sound to lyrics over 40 years old. Elvis Costello’s central offering to Lost On The River is a continual stretching of the boundaries of where a writer, who is a very different composer than Bob Dylan, can musically take a listener who is used to the trademark Dylan lyric and sound. All of these fine musicians sing lead vocal on the songs for which they wrote music.

Jim James leads off Lost On The River with the haunting “Down On The Bottom”, romps playfully on “Nothing To It”, provides a somewhat retro feel for “Hidee Hidee Ho #11”, and belts out roots rockin’ vocals with an indie twist on “Quick Like A Flash”.

Marcus Mumford’s first track, “Kansas City”, is a delicious combination of sorrowful and happy, “When I Get My Hands On You” is a sparse but beautiful love song, “Stranger” is a seamless marriage of Mumford/Dylan styles, and “The Whistle is Blowing” is an instant classic.

The first thing you hear from Rhiannon Giddens is her haunting banjo followed closely by a melody sung with a celtic flair which then blossoms into the beautiful story song “Spanish Mary”. Her next offering, “Duncan and Jimmy”, is a rootsy story with soaring harmonies, then comes a haunting alternate vision for “Hidee Hidee Ho #16” who’s lyric content is similar to Jim James’ version #11. Giddens wraps up her songs with a spiritual treatment of “Lost On The River #20”.

Taylor Goldsmith’s melodic constructions and vocal style is a perfect match for the job of updating Dylan’s lyrics with a modern anthemic feel on “Liberty Street”, “Florida Key”, “Card Shark”, and “Diamond Ring”.

Elvis Costello gives an edgy roots rock treatment to “Married To My Hack” and “Six Months in Kansas City”, while taking “Lost On The River #12” and “Golden Tom–Silver Judas” to a tender opposite. The places Costello takes Dylan’s lyrics reminds me that one needs to let go of all expectations when listening to any project in which Bob Dylan is involved. Each repeated listening is an act of discovery. 

The New Basement Tapes is a thoughtful, talented collective, their recording “Lost On The River” gently melds the new and the old into the timeless, and producer T Bone Burnett’s handling of the project and the musicians is an inspired effort.

Burnett explains it best in his own words, “what transpired during those two weeks was amazing for all of us. There was a deep well of generosity and support in the studio at all times, which reflected the tremendous trust and generosity shown by Bob in sharing these lyrics with us in the first place.”

Paul Gerardi is morning host of Open Air on JPR’s Rhythm and News Service, and continues to be one of the hosts for The Folk Show. You can find out more about Paul by reading his biography at ijpr.org or by visiting his website at www.paulgerardi.com