For all of their talismanic power, Bob Dylan’s strikingly informal, creatively amazing, long-bootlegged 1967-era collaborations with the Band have remained a series of scattered joys. Even the belated release of The Basement Tapes did little to sate a fanbase who’d already heard troves of music that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it onto that official 1975 project.
Four decades later, “Odds and Ends” arrives like a closed fist to the jaw. It’s a burly, propulsive rocked-out version of the rootsier take issued as the opening cut on The Basement Tapes, and definitive proof that lost time may never be found again but, sometimes, lost songs are. Our too-quick preview heralds a sprawling new six-disc version of the original Big Pink recordings, compiled with assistance from the Band’s professorial musical genius Garth Hudson — whose careful numbering system of each desultory take allowed producer Jan Haust an opportunity here to properly sequence every usuable element.
As much as it offers us a chance to experience a raw and unfettered Dylan once more, it shines new light on the Band’s surging power as accompanists, as well. On the initially released version, Dylan is at the piano, while Robbie Robertson rips off jagged guitar riffs and Hudson adds organ stabs. Bassist Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, an underrated, idiosyncratic drummer, rounded out the lineup. They sound, at once, like the tough road crew that bolstered rockabilly hounddog Ronnie Hawkins — “we had one thing on our minds,” Robertson once said of that period: “stomp” — but also like the remarkably intuitive unit that they were quickly becoming.
This was, of course, a crossroads for both Dylan and the Band, and each emerged from it utterly transformed. As such, both the importance of these collaborations and the blank confusion over their poorly curated legacy aren’t easy to overestimate. Dylan would definitively turn toward a rural, more personal aesthetic, while the Band (which to that point had simply been a well-regarded backing group) reeled off two or three of the most important recordings of the period.
But first, as The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (due November 4, 2014 on Legacy Recordings) project makes clear, they had to find common ground. So the set, which will also include a two-disc compilation of highlights titled The Basement Tapes Raw, traces their earliest cover song-focused sessions — moments where the words and music of Johnny Cash and Curtis Mayfield played key roles. Only later did Dylan and the Band begin to find their new voices, mixing and matching on songs like “Tears of Rage” (in which Manuel’s early theme was completed by Dylan) and “This Wheel’s On Fire” (with Danko writing alongside Dylan) even as they walked away with several timeless individual tracks that propelled next-phase personas.
Tracing this creative outburst, from its tentative start to its boisterous end, is what gives The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 its cache. The old 1975 release has long been criticized for having included additional demos and contemporary overdubs that muddied the original concept. Plenty of arguments ensued over what made the final tracklisting and what did not, too. Perhaps we’ve finally gotten the historical document that this era so richly deserves. After all, to this pairing’s deepest, most committed followers, these will never simply be odds and ends.