I’ve never been a big Bob Dylan fan. I don’t like folk music in general, and I’ve never brought myself to give his electric era a proper listen. When I wrote about his seminal Blonde on Blonde, I said, “I still don’t get Bob Dylan. I still don’t expect any sort of Dylan epiphany where I finally see the light. But after listening to Blonde on Blonde, I do have a handful of Dylan songs that I will most probably listen to again, by choice. So that’s not an unsubstantial result.” So, faint praise at best.
While I don’t like Dylan all that much, I love Martin Scorsese. Which lead to watching his amazing documentary, The Last Waltz. Following The Band as they perform they’re last ever gig, it made me love The Band. Which was a surprise, because before seeing The Last Waltz, all I knew about them was that they were Bob Dylan’s backing band for a while. Re-listening to the The Last Waltz soundtrack recently, I had a thought; Maybe The Band could be my gateway to finally understanding Dylan. So here I am, listening to a Dylan album, backed by The Band, with The Basement Tapes.
Dylan’s voice is a big part of what I don’t like about Dylan, so The Basement Tapes starts out surprisingly well by downplaying his particular twang. The country romp of Odds and Ends is full of backing vocals and harmonies, making Dylan just one part of a much larger whole. While Orange Juice Blues dispatches Dylan all together, letting The Band’s keyboard player, Richard Manuel take centre stage.
Which makes Million Dollar Bash all the worse. Dylan sounds like he’s doing an impression of Bob Dylan for a Saturday Night Live sketch. But it’s redeemed by Yazoo Street Scandal. It kind of reminds me of later Beatles, when Paul would decide to really rock out. Then it’s back to Manuel vocals on Katie’s Been Gone. And what a welcome return those non-Dylan vocals are.
Lo and Behold! Kind of contradicts everything I’ve said so far about Dylan and his voice. More spoken than sung, his cadence works a lot better for me when Dylan is talk-singing, telling a story (it doesn’t work so well later on Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread). And when he does out and out sing in the chorus, it seems more earned and in context, so it doesn’t infuriate me.
With its real feel of an old spiritual, or even a chain gang song, Apple Sucking Tree perfectly combines that raw, vintage feel, with the pristine musicianship of The Band. It’s also another example of knowing how to use Dylan’s unique voice well. Closing out the first half of this double album is Tears of Rage. Sweet and tender, it’s a side of Dylan I don’t remember hearing before. Or if I have, it didn’t stand out as anything to remember. But here, it’s great.
Ain’t No More Cane is a return to the band, ensemble sound that made me like the opening minutes of The Basement Tapes so much. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this entire album is at its best when Dylan is just a member of this group, not a front man/solo artist with backing band.
With what sounds to me to be drummer Levon Helm on vocals, Don’t Tell Henry is a raucous, rock and roll good time. Compete with a bluesed out solo from guitarist Robbie Robertson. It also kicks off a more mainstream, easily accessible run to the end of The Basement Tapes. Rolling in to songs like Nothing Was Delivered, Open the Door Homer and Long Distance Operator, true to their genre of rock and blues, and easy to grab onto for even the most casual listener.
Ending amazingly strongly with Wheels on Fire, it’s a song so good that I can’t imagine any arrangement or interpretation ruining it. But in the context of the more upbeat covers that have come in the years since, this feels a little too restrained, too measured, too laboured. It’s still amazing, it’s just not as good as I’ve heard it done by others.
So, did The Basement Tapes bring me around on Bob Dylan? Not really. There are some Dylen-esque moments that I really liked, but mostly, it just reiterated the things I already knew I liked or disliked about him. The upside is, it also completely reiterated everything I love about The Band. And that’s more than enough reason to dive into this double record behemoth.