There are those moments you wish you could freeze time and snatch up every person you love in the world, transporting them to your location. Halting the cosmos just long enough that all those wonderful people that make your life feel special could dance with you in a circle celebrating vitality and kinship. The Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles just had one of those moments, featuring what may likely be the only performance ever from a supergroup of epic proportions, the affectionately named The New Basement Tapes. Assembled by super producer T. Bone Burnett, the group is comprised of heavyweights Marcus Mumford, Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James and Rhiannon Giddens. The band collaboratively composed and recorded a batch of songs based on unused Bob Dylan lyrics written (and subsequently lost for decades) from Dylan’s infamous early-career hiatus at Big Pink. That’s right, after a smattering of late-night TV performances, the group pretty much randomly decided to play a show in LA and gave themselves about a day to rehearse this monstrosity of a musical opus they call Lost on the River.
The results were nothing less than outstanding.
It’s not surprising given that any one of the five performers could put on a stellar show either solo or with their own respective bands. The players jumped between instruments all night. Opening with Mumford on drums, Giddens on fiddle, Costello on guitar, Goldsmith on bass, James took first vocal lead on “Down on the Bottom,” howling like a snarling beast. Giddens came next hooting “Spanish Mary” like a woods witch emerging from a Louisiana bayou. Goldsmith demonstrated that while perhaps not the biggest name in the bunch, he was easily the most versatile musician, playing a delicate piano line on a plaintive “Liberty Street.” Costello’s “Married to My Hack” was a short and punchy blues send-off. Mumford completed the first rotation, bringing none other than the three Haim sisters out for the calming “The Whistle is Blowing.”
From there, the group alternated out of sequence. Goldsmith’s cuts “Florida Key” and “Diamond Ring” ebbed the mood towards uplifting spirits. Costello’s take on “Lost on the River” bubbled up with gospel-infused warmth. Costello then took the opportunity to explain how in some cases they ended up with several versions of the same lyrics, so they would try to do two versions of one number “Hidee Hidee Hidee Ho” back-to-back. The first was driven by Giddens’ sultry voice, playing the song like the gleeful grimace of a cheating lover. James’ version swung with the patience of a half-comical jazz cat, the band’s back-ups of, “Making Love wherever we go” working as a foil for him to improvise off of.
The group played one unreleased track on the night. Sung by Costello, it featured the lyrical refrain “I’m going to heaven before it’s too late.” The next three songs are destined to become modern-day classics. Mumford’s awe-inspiring “Kansas City” was an enveloping piece of heartfelt joy, enrapturing through its earnest cry for reciprocity. On this one, Mumford was backed up not only by the Haim sisters, but also by actor/musician extraordinaire Johnny Depp. Next, Giddens quipped that while she had learned much through being a part of this band about guitars and amps, banjo was what she truly knew best. Mark my words, this primary set closing song “Duncan and Jimmy” will be a year-end favorite and be remembered for decades to come. This simple number anchored by Giddens’ strong voice and nimble banjo strum literally wrenched the crowd of their seats to a massive cheer. This one had heart, verve, a massive escalating crescendo and a cathartic conclusion. Immediately after the encore break, Mumford melted love struck hearts with his tender and unforgettable “When I Get My Hands On You.” Seriously, this is what should be dominating the charts in the USA right now.
For their final few songs, the group varied their approach. Giddens’ ultra spooky and ominous “Lost on the River” was followed by Goldsmith playing the early-1900’s retro-feeling “Card Shark” unamplified, his four band mates making humorous faces behind him while singing the song’s backing vocals. James opted for dialed-up force on the rocking “Quick Like a Flash,” punching up the power chords as much as possible. Appropriately, Costello had the night’s final words, bringing an edge of 60’s pop choral flair to “Golden Tom – Silver Judas,” a fitting finale given the tradition of the time that saw Dylan’s birth in the first place.
For those lucky enough to even know this was happening, this was one for the history books. A show likely no one who saw it will ever forget. Many, will likely wish they could see it again just as it happened to search for nuance they missed the first time while they simply watched in amazement. However, most of America, nay, most of the world will never know just what this was like in person. Between Giddens’ Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mumford’s Mumford & Sons, Goldsmith’s Dawes, James’ My Morning Jacket and the 8 billion bands and projects Costello finds himself in every year, their respective busy schedules will most likely make this be the only time the group ever performs together live. If ever the words of one scribe in the digital world that we call modern journalism could reach around the world and hit the right people in power, let that moment be now. To whomever is in the position of power to pull the right strings to make this happen, bring this group to the people. The fans deserve to see this, even if it’s just one short tour. Sometimes scarcity is what makes something special, but if basically no one gets a chance to see it, it diminishes the power and importance that it truly deserves. There’s so much disposable nonsense littering our airwaves and venues, let’s bring something pure and true to anyone that cares enough to listen.
Down on the Bottom – Jim James vocals
Spanish Mary – Rhiannon Giddens vocals
Liberty Street – Taylor Goldsmith vocals
Married to My Hack – Elvis Costello vocals
The Whistle is Blowing – Marcus Mumford vocals with Haim on backing vocals
Diamond Ring – Taylor Goldsmith vocals
Nothing to It – Jim James vocals
Lost on the River – Elvis Costello vocals
Florida Key – Taylor Goldsmith vocals
Stranger – Marcus Mumford vocals
Hidee Hidee Hidee Ho – Rhiannon Giddens vocals
Hidee Hidee Hidee Ho (alternate version) – Jim James vocals
“Unreleased track” – Elvis Costello
Kansas City – Marcus Mumford Vocals with Johnny Depp on guitar and Haim on back-up vocals
Duncan and Jimmy – Rhiannon Giddens vocals with Johnny Depp on guitar and Danielle Haim on shakers
— Encore break —
When I Get My Hands on You – Marcus Mumford vocals
Lost on the River – Rhiannon Giddens
Card Shark (unamplified) – Taylor Goldsmith vocals
Quick Like a Flash – Jim James vocals
Golden Tom – Silver Judas – Elvis Costello vocals