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Wisecracks and Roadside Flats: Million-dollar magic take

The Basement Tapes Band, from left: Sarah Krueger, Veikko Lepisto, Lee 'Big Country' Martin, Teague Alexy and Marc Gartman. (Photo submitted)

I had assured family and friends in Philadelphia I would stop for a night’s rest at some point, but in my mind I was prepared to drive the 1,200 miles back to my new home in Holyoke, Minn. in one smooth stroke. My last stop in PhiIly was AKA Music on Second Street where I bought “The Basement Tapes” double CD by Bob Dylan and The Band. Something to occupy my mind for the long trek.

I had never heard the mysterious Basement Tapes, but read how Dylan and The Band wrote and recorded these songs during a bucolic escape from the bustle of the big city. I listened to disc one rolling through the majestic Pocono Mountains and disc two as I made good time on Highway 80 through Northern Pennsylvania. I had been looking forward to the brilliant autumn leaves on one of my favorite stretches of American highway.

The music, however, was bewildering. Are these guys in tune? Are they drunk? Was this recorded on a boombox cassette deck? Are they mocking the listener? The cover photo, with Dylan and The Band dressed in circus costumes, certainly made it seem like a gag. I cracked the window and killed the radio.

When the sun went down over Toledo, I was ready to hear The Basement Tapes again. Disc one. Disc two. Disc one. Disc two. I kept the headlights pointed northwest, sipped gas station coffee and began to detect subtle genius in the quirky commentary and lo-fi sounds as interstates eventually turned to highways, highways to county roads, and I made the final early morning push through the Nemadji forest into the deep woods of Holyoke.

“Low and behold,

Low and behold,

Looking for my low and behold.

Get me out of here my dear man.”

Twelve years after that drive from Philadelphia I am rehearsing as part of a local all-star presentation of The Basement Tapes. Marc, Sarah, Lee, Veikko and I meet after hours at Karpeles Manuscript Museum, a well-preserved architectural wonder on Duluth’s lower hillside.

We tune our instruments as the late-day sun illuminates the tall stained glass windows. Soon our joyful noise is warmly bouncing off the 50-foot ceilings and hardwood floors. Marc interjects dry humor into “Quinn The Eskimo” and Sarah’s falsetto reveals a chilling beauty in “Tears of Rage.” We all trade verses and chime in with harmony, call and response and hollers of encouragement. It seems a great spirit is in the old rotunda tonight.

Bryce, the recording engineer, had arrived at Karpeles an hour early to set up microphones and record our only rehearsal before the following night’s show at Tycoon’s Alehouse. The debut of our collective tribute had created a buzz as one of the highlights of the Duluth Dylan Days Festival.

We have only tonight’s rehearsal to work out two sets of Basement Tapes material for a packed house of Dylan fans and fanatics.

“Teague, can you just step a little closer to the mics?” Between songs Bryce steps out from his make shift control room on the other side of a Negro Baseball Leagues exhibit to politely ask me to cooperate with the recording.

“I’m really liking the way it sounds,” he says. “But I need to hear more of you.”

“OK,” I say, but within minutes I turn towards the band again and away from the microphones. The music sounds good, but we need to tighten up some things. I’m concentrating on the changes, arrangements, harmonies and lyrics to songs I didn’t write. Singing towards the microphones is the least of my concerns.

“Open the door, Richard.

I’ve heard it said before.

But I ain’t gonna hear it said no more.”

“It sounds really good guys,” says Bryce. “Teague, just, if you could, ya know, just take a good step toward the mics. We’ll really have it, I think.”

“Oh, right,” I say.

“Should we try ‘Million Dollar Bash?’” suggests Veikko.

“1, 2, 3, 4,” I count in. Veikko lays down the groove on his big upright bass. The rest of the band falls in with purpose. I lazily lay the vocals overtop and in between, accentuating the mock enthusiasm in Dylan’s lyrics. When Sarah joins in perfect harmony, a soulful and inviting, “Eww-baby, eww-wee, it’s that million dollar bash,” you can feel the band’s confidence grow. The groove gets a bit deeper during the second verse with Sarah and Marc chiming in. Marc’s banjo and Lee’s guitar expertly play off one another. On the choruses all five voices ring off the museum walls.

“Eww-baby, eww-wee,

It’s that million dollar bash”

“You got it, Lee,” I say.

Lee points the neck of his guitar towards the ceiling and leans into every note of the solo with a heavy dose of tex-mex-Duluth-psychedelic-boogie-til-it-feels-good-Americana.  

“Whoa!” I’m thinking. “This is sounding like a magic take. We should be recording ... Oh, right ... We are recording! Am I facing the mics?”

Receive a free instant download of Teague Alexy’s version of Million Dollar Bash when you preorder Teague Alexy’s forthcoming album Circuit Sessions (4/4/2017) at teaguealexy.com. Duluth’s Basement Tapes Band will perform on May 24 at The Rex Bar in Duluth as part of the seventh annual Duluth Dylan Fest and May 25 at Pioneer Place Theatre in St Cloud.

Teague Alexy

Teague Alexy is a Duluth-based musician and writer who grew up in Somers Point, N.J. teaguealexy.com

Check out the podcast version of Wisecracks & Roadside Flats on iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.

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