Charlie McCoy, Al Kooper and David Bromberg reveal all about the recording sessions for Dylan's Self Portrait album
A Bootleg Series veteran, on the restoration of the Isle Of Wight concert tapes
With the new version we’ve done of the Isle Of Wight concert, the first thing you have to remember is the circumstances of the original recording. It’s 1969. There are no cell phones. Basically, you’ve got a couple of guys stuck in a truck, hundreds of yards away from the stage. It had to have been madness. They’ve been awake for three days straight, and they’re recoding with no tangible connection to the stage or the board or what’s going on. You know: how many people are playing, where are the microphones, who else is set up at the same time, what time do they play, how long do they play for, are they gonna move around, when’s the guitar solo coming…? It’s a true testament to Glyn Johns and Elliott Mazer who did the original recording that they got it at all.
Their tapes have all the information on there, albeit kind of distorted, and sometimes without a direct microphone on anything, and with tremendous leakage from microphone to microphone. But the tapes themselves were in good shape, eight channels. So, in the new mix, we’ve tried to bring back in something of the size and scope of what was happening. For one reason or another, any time I’ve heard material from this concert in the past, the mix sounded small, close together, almost like a form of Basement Tapes, as if they were closed in together in a small space. But this was a huge open-air event, with tremendous anticipation, and, even at the time, some historic notoriety, because this was Dylan returning to the stage after three years away.
So we’ve tried to bring that back – make it live, make it as big as it was again, and have it feel like it’s out there, in this place, in the middle of hundreds of thousands of people, with excitement and energy bristling, both on stage and in the audience. The tapes are still kind of distorted in parts – but that’s okay. When you hear it now, it brings back the excitement and the tension of that moment. You know: Bob and The Band are playing, and they’ve got The Beatles sitting right there in front of them.
A personal favourite moment is the version they do of “Highway 61”. It sounds pretty clear that there are only overhead microphones over Levon Helm. And Levon sounds like he’s having a pretty good time: he’s hollering along with Bob, and you can really hear him – and I don’t think he even had a vocal mic at that time. I think it’s just these overheads are picking him up, because he’s singing it, screaming out so loud. It has fantastic life to it. And any distortion or bleeding makes no difference, because those guys are just rocking. It’s thrilling.
I should add that we’ve mixed everything both completely analogue and digital, and, for the people who care, I think the vinyl LP’s that come from this will be pretty great. They’re made like records were made, from tape and analogue mixes. We wanted to be faithful to the period – 1969-71 – and we thought that the record should sound and feel and be of the dimension of its time. They’re pretty special.
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