We treat our idols like assholes: Just as wax museums house life-sized recreations of heroes we may never meet, tribute bands give us that thrill of seeing a band master songs by an act that may never pass our way again.
John Bonham has been dead since 1980, but we can feel him rattle our bones thanks to ZOSO. John Lennon died three months later, but one band that plays Beatles songs, 1964, once sold out Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver and was rated the 167th top grossing touring band in America by Pollstar. We can see sets by The Grateful Dead performed in their entirety by Dark Star Orchestra, or hear The Dead's hits flank a complete cover of Dark Side of the Moon through Cosmic Charlie. Imitation of the inimitable may not be high art, but it is a very big business.
Perhaps that's why the plans of New York-based songwriter Howard Fishman to cover Bob Dylan & The Band's The Basement Tapes are, at first, very frightening: In 1967, Dylan & The Band (then known as The Hawks) retreated to the basement of a big, pink house in West Saugerties, N.Y., to play music. They weren't looking to make a record: Dylan was still recuperating from his infamous motorcycle accident, and The Hawks were simply on retainer from Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, and were still writing their debut. Dylan & The Band recorded more than 100 songs together in that basement. Columbia Records released the 24-song, two-LP The Basement Tapes in 1975. Aside from those cuts, though, the bulk of that music has only been available through bootlegs.
Fishman, then, is mining the most private recordings of two of American music's biggest icons for his own benefit. And Dylan's songs have done more for his career than his own songs. Thanks to this project, he has played New York's Lincoln Center and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, and he has received an endorsement from critic Greil Marcus.
So is the singer-songwriter who folds old-world forms into his own new tunes becoming famous by performing a slew of practices that did much the same 40 years ago? Relatively, yes, but don't balk just yet. Fishman's take on The Basement Tapes isn't a tribute concert. Aside from offering public performances of music that Dylan refuses to release, it presents an important critical lesson about Dylan's past-into-present musical relationship with The Band while using the songs themselves more as suggestions than scripts.
When Fishman performs the music at Duke, he will divide the songs into three nights, each with a distinct theme. Night One—subtitled The Old, Weird America in homage to the book of the same name by Marcus—will feature the traditional songs Dylan and The Band played in West Saugerties. Night Two—subtitled Erase That, Garth in reference to Band keyboardist Garth Hudson—features original tunes from the sessions that have never been officially released. Night Three—subtitled This Wheel Shall Explode, a line borrowed from Dylan/ Rick Danko co-write "This Wheel's on Fire"—includes the 24 songs found on Columbia Records' The Basement Tapes.
The organization works because the music recorded in the basement of Big Pink regarded American folk idioms as a springboard for new ideas. The harmonies of a song like Dylan's "Goin' to Acapulco" owe their ease to the traditionals the band was also tackling in the basement, particularly "Ain't No More Cane." Fishman's progression implies an order that, though not historically accurate, offers evidence for that telling perspective.
"I know that this structure didn't exist when they were recording it, but in a way it almost feels like I am presenting it as if it grew in this way," says Fishman. "Imagine Bob Dylan and The Band. OK, they're in the country, sitting around playing this music—old blues, old spirituals, old country music—and gradually it morphs into, 'OK, let's write some tunes that are based on this old stuff.' There's a lot of trial and error. 'This is sort of good. This is not so good. This kind of works. Half of this tune works. We need a bridge for this one.'"
Such a trial-and-error factor offers the most invigorating element in Fishman's approach to The Basement Tapes. Instead of meticulously arranged covers, Fishman's notion means loose, sometimes haphazard first-takes. Appropriately, it sometimes sounds like a band still rehearsing, trying to get the material right. The Duke performances will be Fishman's fourth turn with these songs, but it will be the first time he has publicly played these songs with this particular band. They will have rehearsed just twice before they take the stage Thursday. And, on the bandstand, Fishman will spontaneously suggest new approaches, ideas, moods and even songs.
"I never wanted to arrange these songs, so the big challenge of approaching the material was ... what makes this music so amazingly great is how personal and instinctual it is," says Fishman. "If I try to mimic that or copy that, it will no longer be personal or instinctual. It will be planned and it will be, 'We're doing Bob Dylan & The Band.'"
In essence, it would become a tribute concert. Instead, Fishman canceled many of the scheduled rehearsals the first time he performed the music in 2006. Onstage, the band played what felt right, effectively turning these psychedelic folk and country curios into open templates, jazz heads that are good enough to be played either straight or improvised and completely reconfigured. Old-time "Pretty Polly" became a nine-minute freak-out, and "Quit Kickin' My Dog Around" got the audience laughing. All appropriate responses, says Fishman.
"There are people for whom this music doesn't resonate.... But there's no trace of condescension from [the band] to this music. Sometimes you get cats who are really, really good, and they'll hear this music and say, 'You wanna play what?" he says, lauging. "Everybody in the band is very funny. People have to be able to respond to this music. It would be hard to work with someone who heard this music and didn't crack a smile."
The Howard Fishman Band's three-night stand in Duke University's Nelson Music Room begins Thursday, April 3, at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit dukeperformances.duke.edu.