I picked this up when it was released, but it's taken me a while to begin to digest it, and to figure out what I wanted to say about it. I think I know now.
First, some general remarks. I've always liked the original Self Portrait album, probably more than your average Dylan fan, definitely more than the punters and the critics. I agree that, as released, as a unit, it's a mess, probably a fuck-you; but within that mess are moments of great beauty, if not quite genius. And bootlegs and whatnot have shown me that there was a lot of good stuff left off the album. So I was surprised, but not at all dismayed, to learn that the Bootleg Series was going to take a good long look at the sessions. Great choice.
But the result is just as much of a hodgepodge (if not a fuck-you) as the original album. Moments of great beauty, but presented in such a disorderly, haphazard fashion that the package ends up obscuring as much as it reveals. Which is a shame, because it reveals quite a lot.
I'm going to start with two egregious examples of Columbia burying the lede.
The big one is the Isle of Wight set. This has long been my vote for Next Bootleg Release. It had all the requirements: great historical significance, nice performance, notoriety, and yet rarity value because the circulating tapes were so spotty.
Hearing it here in its entirety in excellent sound only confirms me in my love for this show. In the acoustic numbers it contains some of Dylan's best ever singing - on "Wild Mountain Thyme" he does things that I've only ever heard Aaron Neville pull off. And on the electric stuff he modulates skilfully between an abandon that looks forward to Tour '74 and a smooth control that recalls (of course) Nashville Skyline. But with the Band. I mean, hearing the Band put their stamp on a few Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding numbers is deeply, deeply satisfying. This show is a missing link, a key part of the Dylan story. So I'm glad they released it.
But shocked and scandalized that they released it only in the super-deluxe mondo-expensive edition of the set. Meaning only the most dedicated of fans are going to get it. This is far too good to be bonus material. This is headline quality music. Should have been its own standalone release, as far as I'm concerned.
The other buried lede, and this may be even bigger, is the studio version of "Minstrel Boy." The sole new original at the Isle of Wight show (not counting "The Mighty Quinn," which was known if not previously released), the song was a key part of the Self Portrait album. So it's a real nice touch that they included a studio take of it here. Particularly since this comes from the Basement Tapes sessions of 1967, and yet has never circulated (despite the plethora of unreleased material from those sessions that does circulate - and when are they going to release a complete box of Basement tracks?).
But here's where the lede gets buried. Because Levon Helm's voice is in unmistakeable evidence on this recording - and nowhere else on the circulating Basement tracks. He had dropped out of the Band (the Hawks) during their 1965-6 world tour backing Dylan, and didn't rejoin until late '67, just as they were gearing up to become the Band. For decades there have been rumors of Basement Tapes with Levon, but everything that circulates from 1967 of the Band backing Dylan lacks Levon. So the release of a Basement song that includes him is huge. It's evidence that Dylan did keep laying down tracks with them after Levon returned - and it suggests that there's more where this came from. Again, for decades there have been rumors of another reel or two or more of Basement stuff, perhaps in the possession of Garth Hudson. Maybe it's true. Maybe there's more where this came from.
But the liner notes are mum on the subject.
(To be honest, I'm not a hundred percent convinced that it is from 1967. Dylan's voice sounds like '67, but some of his Isle of Wight singing slips back into that Basement vibe, so this could just as easily come from rehearsals for that concert. It could, perhaps, be 1969. But I have no reason to think that other than, I guess, a general feeling that Columbia isn't telling this story as carefully as they should.)