This restoration of Dylan’s home recordings with the Band, made during his post-motorcycle accident retreat from public work in 1966-67, is handily available in two different configurations to suit your personal level of fanaticism.
Dylan never meant for these sessions to be released, they’re working tapes of new songs, meant to be sent to other artists to cover them, literally recorded in his basement in Woodstock, NY, with organist Garth Hudson doubling as recording engineer. But even the casual fan will get a lot out of the affordable, 2-disc Raw edition, which contains all the major songs from the period, performed with a casual grandeur by one of the greatest of all rock ensembles at its most relaxed. These sessions have an intimate, unrehearsed vibe that stands in contrast to the crackling electricity of Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. What you hear instead is the instinct of great musicians, reacting to new ideas and forming arrangements on the fly, playing for each others’ pleasure rather than fretting over a perfect take. It’s a joy to hear, and at over two hours, a generous amount.
However, the bootleg-savvy music historian with a sufficient love for Dylan to justify a $100-ish investment should seriously consider the handsome 6-disc Complete edition, which arrives in a sturdy 8 1/2-inch box containing two hardbound books. It’s immersive in a way that few archival releases are. We the audience have rarely had such an opportunity to follow an artist of Dylan’s magnitude through their day to day creative process (only the dozens of hours of leaked raw footage from the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions and the 5-disc set of Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions come to mind), and this set adds over thirty tracks to the most comprehensive bootlegs previously produced. Both editions are free from the overdubs and later-period Band tracks added to the 1975 double-album The Basement Tapes, where some of this material first saw release, as well as a noticeable sound quality upgrade from all previous pressings.
The set is arranged chronologically, and the first two discs contain almost all covers of old American songs, spirituals, blues and country standards, even doo-wop. Listening to the whole thing, a picture begins to emerge in the mind of what Dylan was going for when he set out to work in this manner, a natural ease and comfort between all the players that would allow him to work quickly when the originals began to flow. Once the flow begins, around the beginning of disc three, it continues at a rapid pace with “I Shall Be Released”, “This Wheel’s On Fire”, “The Mighty Quinn”, “Tears Of Rage” and “Nothing Was Delivered” coming in quick succession. Most of the major songs from the period get two versions, sometimes revealing a major re-haul. You also get takes of older Dylan songs like “One Too Many Mornings”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” that one friend of mine suspects represent the arrival of Levon Helm, playing familiar tunes to get him into the groove.
Is every last second of it essential? It depends on how much patience and curiosity you have for this material. These tapes were the source of the first widely-produced rock bootleg album (the 2-LP Great White Wonder in 1969), and its underground success proved that there was an audience ravenous to hear tapes from their favorite artists that weren’t meant to be heard. There is definitely a kind of person who will devour the three versions of “Open The Door Homer” and note what changed as the song developed, all the brief fragments and incomplete takes, and all the lesser-quality cassette-sourced tracks on disc 6, appreciating how each moment adds to a bigger picture. For that person, nothing but the Complete set will do. But the cream of the period is well represented on Raw, a well of material no serious student of American music should be without.
Laughing Len is an artist who shines in a live context, and this intense, three-hour performance from the 2013 tour supporting his then-current Old Ideas album makes for a worthy addition to his already-extensive list of live albums. When Cohen first recorded most of these songs, he sounded older than his years; as an octogenarian, he sounds only slightly older, his phrasing and note choices only having sharpened with time. The band is impeccable, as is the audio and video quality. Inspired readings of”Bird On A Wire”, “Everybody Knows” and “Tower of Song” are the usual meat of a Cohen set, but expect chills from the “If It Be Your Will” as sung by the Webb Sisters, a moment that stole the air from the room when Cohen played the Nokia Theater in 2008. Fittingly, the six new songs in the set (three found as DVD bonus tracks) bristle with an immediacy not always found on their studio recordings – maybe he should ONLY make live albums from now on.