How do you bring together five musicians, each with significant catalogs of their own, and put them on the same stage without a hint of raging ego or argument over who gets the spotlight?
Easy. Just throw them some vintage, unreleased Bob Dylan songs to belatedly bring to the world.
That's what happened Thursday at the Montalban Theatre in Hollywood for the first and perhaps only concert appearance by the New Basement Tapes band, which includes Elvis Costello, Mumford & Sons' Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Carolina Chocolate Drops' Rhiannon Giddens and Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith. (The group was slated to tape a live-in-the-studio session Friday morning, which will eventually air on Sirius XM.)
The ad-hoc ensemble assembled by producer T Bone Burnett just released Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, an album consisting of newly completed songs set to lyrics Dylan wrote circa 1967 and stashed away until recently.
The camaraderie and mood of generosity was apparent throughout Thursday's nearly two-hour show, which James noted, "We didn't know about until a day and a half ago."
The quintet has been making rounds of promotional appearances and performances on the late-night talk show circuit, but hastily decided to put on a full-fledged concert as long as everyone was together. The result was a case study in the power of egalitarian artistic collaboration.
How much of a hometown party was it? L.A.'s sibling trio Haim showed up to add background vocals to a couple of numbers, and Johnny Depp slinked onstage to strum a low-slung electric guitar on a couple more.
Possibly the most illuminating facet of the show was the juxtaposition of the band members' distinct interpretations of the same lyrics, demonstrating that there really is no single, "right" way to craft a song.
Giddens, the Chocolate Drops' gifted singer, banjo player and fiddler, brought visceral gravitas to her darkly foreboding arrangement of "Hi-De-Ho," while James, with his clenched, Dylan-circa-Nashville Skyline/New Morning-era vocals, turned the same set of lyrics into a dreamy '30s-pop love song, replete with a handful of roses he tossed to the capacity crowd as he larked about the stage.
Goldsmith took the lead on a disarming rendition of "Liberty Street," a lyric Costello paired with a driving rock beat.
The great temptation in hearing lyrics from the period after Dylan's mysterious motorcycle accident — a time when he effectively escaped the media circus of the previous half-dozen years — is to try to draw a line to what was happening in his life at the moment.
Was Dylan assessing his flirtation with stardom after his No. 1 hit "Like a Rolling Stone" when he wrote, in "Nothing to It":
I knew I was young enough
I knew there was nothing to it
‘Cause I'd already seen it done enough
And I knew there was nothing to it
It's also hard not to think about Dylan's relatively new status as husband and father when James sang an elegantly simple arrangement of "When I Get My Hands on You," with its recurring line "Now you know/ Everywhere on earth you go/ You're gonna have me as your man" — as powerfully straightforward an expression of love and commitment as Dylan ever wrote.
But it's misleading to look to Lost on the River for direct allusions to Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes sessions. Yes, there were moments of shared expression—a couple of Goldsmith's solos harkened to Robbie Robertson's signature style, and at least once Mumford, when occasionally sitting behind one of the two drum kits on stage, invoked happy memories of Levon Helm's deep approach to rhythmic fundamentals.
The relevant parallel is that in both cases a cast of musicians set aside pop conventions and let their hearts and minds guide them to the essence of Dylan's lyrics.