The greatest album Bob Dylan never intended to make – hours of blues, country, folk ballads and newly composed surrealism recorded as far off the grid as he could get in 1967 – has been a half-century in coming, arriving in waves of teasing and surprise (bootlegs, the 1975 Columbia double LP, newly unearthed takes) like treasure from a trunk with many false bottoms. These six CDs are, we’re assured, every surviving note Dylan taped with his sidemen, the future Band, in upstate New York after the unsustainable frenzy of their 1965-’66 tour and his July ’66 motorcycle accident.
The immediate impression in this bulk and sequence (mostly covers, at first) is that the sessions began as a holiday, a healing break from manic ascension and suffocating adulation. Horsing around with old boogie numbers and Top 40 corn came naturally to the Band; Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson (who manned the tape machine) were hardened bar-gig vets. But in their bond (especially as harmonizers) and ease of movement through genres, Dylan found rare, empathic confederates. The apocalyptic warning “This Wheel’s on Fire” and the heartbreaking defeat of “Tears of Rage” were co-writes with Danko and Manuel, respectively. There is also a clear, delightful line from the readings of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and Eric Von Schmidt’s “Joshua Gone Barbados” to the ensemble romp in Dylan’s “Million Dollar Bash” and the plaintive dada of “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.” Dylan has led many great bands; he never found more kindred souls.
Still shocking now: how slow this music is, like Dylan has turned off Highway 61 into dense woodland, as well as the surfacing of previously unissued gems like “One for the Road” and the swaggering R&B of “Silent Weekend.” In October 1967, Dylan was on his own again, cutting John Wesley Harding. But the trunk of treasure he and the Band made in their short season of hiding keeps on giving.