Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Showtime scores with new 'Basement Tapes'

Documentary looks at the creating and recording songs to old lyrics by Bob Dylan.

CHRONICLING the recording of new music using long-lost lyrics by Bob Dylan, tonight's Showtime special "Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued" will have its biggest appeal to the boomer-era fans taking in Mr. D's shows at the Academy of Music this weekend.

But the target demo could be lowered by the far more "current" artists who took on this time-warping collaborative mission - Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and relative old timer Elvis Costello - all working under the gentle guidance of producer T-Bone Burnett.

Plus, there's no denying that the reality-show aspects to the documentary, as produced/directed by Sam Jones, are fascinating. Running almost two hours but seeming shorter, mixing moments of magical cooperation, unspoken rivalry and white knuckle stress, the doc could draw in the same broad swath of music fans who find the early, group-tryout episodes of "American Idol" most compelling.

"Lost Songs" is all about found treasures and half-done castaways from 1967, a year that Dylan took off from touring to "recuperate" after a supposed motorcycle accident in Woodstock. But the world later discovered that he was working his butt off in nearby Saugerties, at a house nicknamed "Big Pink," shaping songs and cutting demos (demonstration recordings) every day for months with a group (originally The Hawks) that came to be known as The Band.

The guy wrote about 150 songs in that period; more than 100 then circulated in demo tape or vinyl form for other artists to hear and record. Manfred Mann scored a big hit with "Mighty Quinn." A bunch wound up on The Band's brilliant debut album. And because the demos offered a rare song cache and glimpse of the artists at their most relaxed, fans (by the hundreds of thousands) would also snap them up in the first unauthorized, circuitously sold bootleg album, "Great White Wonder."

Eight years later, an edited set of monaural "Basement Tapes" was officially released by Columbia. Now, this month, by no small coincidence, a pricey box collecting the complete set (in stereo!) has finally been released.

Fuzzy, grainy recreations (with actors) of Dylan and the Band toiling at Big Pink is part of the new doc, too, with the real Mr. D voicing insights. Some of those songs were spun off news of the day, he explains - China's exploding of a hydrogen bomb sparking "Tears of Rage," for one. And the workaholic acknowledges that he was always scribbling/typing lyrics (and cartoony sketches), with many left half-done, giving opening to the "Lost Songs" project.

While some participants suggest these new super-sessions are akin to the Dylan/Band collaborations, a stressed and insecure Mumford and Giddens both argue it's nothing of the sort. For starters, they're under the gun to create music that shall be released. And the two are clearly in awe of Costello, James and Goldsmith, who've each shown up for the L.A. sessions with lots of ideas and finished tunes, oft times for the same sets of lyrics.

All that makes for some fascinating musical comparisons and dramatic cliffhangers for us flies-on-the-Capitol-studio-walls, as we witness the treatments developing (or not), and second-guess which will prevail.