Bootlicking

Some of the best records are the ones never released

Vaughan runs the gamut here--the disc includes B.B. King ("Treat Her Right") and Willie Dixon ("Shake & Bake") covers, a few familiar originals (an instrumental take of "Life Without You" and "So Excited"), and the ridiculous a cappella "Hang Nails and Boogers"--but the centerpiece is a 14-minute epic that finds Vaughan fusing "Little Wing" with "3rd Stone from the Sun." It begins quietly, beautifully, then suddenly grows into an extended free-jazz and feedback frenzy that unveils Vaughan as more than a mere Hendrix acolyte. It's an awesomely evocative piece, hinting both at his love for jazz improv and his understanding that the best rock and roll eventually finds its way back to the blues, even if it staggers along the way.

Lifehouse and Quadrophenia Demos, The Who. Pete Townshend was a one-man band, the original lo-fi rocker notorious for recording complete and detailed works in progress and then handing them over to Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle to mimic. Townshend's demos for various projects have already surfaced as the Scoop albums (the first of which features "Unused Piano," included here on the "Quadrophenia" disc), but these rare and mostly unheard pieces chronicle the entire conception and gestation of the Who's two finest records--Who's Next and the mod epic Quadrophenia.

Where those two works were overblown in some spots, rigorously produced in others, their counterparts here (recorded in 1970 and 1973) are intimate, fragile, stripped down, and perfect in a very offhanded way. When Townshend sings "Behind Blue Eyes" or "Love Reign O'er Me" or "Bargain," he infuses the songs with a vulnerability and off-key beauty Roger Daltrey could never muster from his macho, mangy arena-rock persona. In Daltrey's hands, Townshend's songs became anthems; Townshend approached his own work as though they were desperate and needful supplications.

Amazingly, Pete's "The Real Me" rings somehow more true in this almost bluesy, almost funky, totally sparse version that sounds as if it could have been recorded by Guided by Voices. Over an organ and a drum machine and bizarrely thin guitar riffs, Townshend growls that "rock and roll's gonna do me an evil wrong," and they now become the eerily prescient words that forever haunt him.

American Outtakes, Johnny Cash. There were allegedly 50 songs recorded for Johnny Cash's 1994 "comeback" American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin--who is, at this very moment, recording Cash again for a follow-up. This is the very unofficial sequel, though, 15 more songs featuring Cash strumming an acoustic guitar and moaning his God-fearin' country-folk hymns in Rubin's living room in May 1993.

It's a startling and haunting record that's every bit as effective as American Recordings: Cash's voice is piercing and doom-saying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the Devil. Particularly remarkable is Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime," one of the only songs from the recording session to feature a guest musician--in this case ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar, doing his best to do his worst Johnny Cash impression.

The Witmark Years: 1962-1964, Bob Dylan. This 41-song, two-disc collection ranks as one of the most astonishing and revelatory discoveries among existing bootlegs. Imagine those days before "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Masters of War," and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" became the stuff of legend and the property of those who would seek to make Dylan an unwilling spokesman; imagine a time before anyone outside of a few New York folkies even heard those songs, a moment when their words still packed an impact and bore a sting. That's when this set was recorded--in an office building, no less, Dylan strumming and singing into a tape recorder to an audience of none.

Stripped of production and myth--Dylan coughs during "Blowin' in the Wind," a door slams shut as he launches into "Masters of War"--the songs reclaim their meaning and their passion. Like Bruce Springsteen now standing before 3,000 people protected only by a guitar and a harmonica, Dylan is the country-bluesman who shouts and whispers and mumbles and groans with such intimacy he sounds like the old friend people always claimed he was. There's even a playfulness about these songs that's missing from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin': During "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," Dylan stops and tells someone who's walked into the room that the song's "a drag." He then laughs, adding, "I sang it so many times."

The Dylan/Cash Sessions, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline sessions bore an odd fruit, most of which was never released. With the exception of "Girl from the North Country," Dylan's duets with Johnny Cash were scrapped and forgotten about; they've become the stuff of legend in the process, which is often the case with the crap that goes unheard. Most of the 15 songs here are fascinating at best and laughable at worst: Dylan does his best to keep up with Cash as The Man in Black leads the Jewish cowboy from Minnesota through "Matchbox," "That's Alright Mama," "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "Blue Yodel No. 5," and a host of other traditional standards. Sloppy and often out of sync, Dylan and Cash (assisted by Carl Perkins, who must have lost a bet to ol' John) fight each other every step of the way; as Cash growls, Dylan takes his wacko stab at actually singing (think "Lay Lady Lay") and ends up forgetting the words so often, Cash actually asks him, "Which ones do you know, Bob?"

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