At the Montalban in Hollywood on Thursday night, patrons were treated to the first, and by some accounts the only, live performance of songs from the T Bone Burnett-produced “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes,” released Nov. 10 on Harvest Records. All the principals on that album were there on stage: Jim James, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith and Marcus Mumford — all multi-instrumentalists, all solo artists in their own right.
Not unlike Burnett’s celebration of music from the Coen Brothers’ paean to the early folk scene in Greenwich Village, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” last November at the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica, this show felt like a private party to which only a lucky few were invited. It was also a hastily assembled affair, arranged just a few days in advance (“we didn’t know about this yesterday,” claimed Mumford at one point), and the whole show had the feeling of a loose jam in which ideas were being tossed back and forth freely, with all the raw energy that a barely rehearsed gig might offer when you’ve got seasoned musicians given a new bag of toys to play with.
That bag, of course, contained never-recorded tunes by Bob Dylan, written during the fecund period of the original Basement Tape sessions in 1967, when Dylan holed up with the Band in and around Woodstock, N.Y., writing and recording a whole mess of tunes only heard on bootlegs until many of them were officially released by Columbia in 1975.
For the new sessions, each artist used Dylan’s lyrics as a blank canvas for their own musical interpretation, and many of the results are something truly special to behold. At the Montalban (an intimate venue named after the actor who played Mr. Roarke on “Fantasy Island”), the music was given an added dose of vitality.
James — the frontman of My Morning Jacket whose version of Dylan’s “Goin’ to Acapulco” provided one of the highlights to Todd Haynes’ impressionistic Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” — looked every bit the fiery prophet on stage, with his long-flowing hair and Jesus beard. James’ atmospheric electric guitar provided the sonic wash over the mostly acoustic instrumentation, and his vocals most directly channeled the source, ranging from the nasal twang of Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” period to the evangelistic wail reminiscent of Dylan’s “Before the Flood” tour with The Band.
Some of the songs were even given multiple treatments, like “Hidee Hidee Ho” and “Kansas City,” with styles that spanned from folk to country to psychedelic rock. In keeping with Burnett’s dedication to all things analog, the instruments were distinctly rootsy, from Giddens’ dynamic fiddle and banjo playing to the saloon piano sound of Goldsmith’s keyboards.
During the finale, the Haim Sisters provided choral backup, and Johnny Depp joined the proceedings on guitar. But this was one joyous occasion that needed no celebrity window dressing.
Also Thursday, Showtime and CAA hosted a premiere of the net’s “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued,” which chronicles the making of the record. Director Sam Jones was in attendance at CAA’s Ray Kurtzman Theater with Rande Gerber, Cindy Crawford, Bill Lawrence and Christa Miller.
(Pictured: Jim James perform songs from “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes”)