How to top Music from Big Pink? Wisely, The Band didn’t even try. Ditching the Dylan co-writes and the covers, The Band returned with their self-titled sophomore LP in fall 1969. Late in 2019, Capitol Records and UMe remixed and expanded that now-classic effort for its 50th anniversary in the style of 2018’s Big Pink campaign with releases in a variety of formats – most notably, a 2-CD/2-LP/1-BD/1 -7″ single super deluxe edition.
The so-called “Brown Album” was recorded about as far from New York as possible – in a Hollywood pool house once owned by Sammy Davis, Jr.! – but the sound was as authentically rustic and folksy as its predecessor. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson, working with producer John Simon, dug their heels in further against the day’s prevailing sounds. The Band lacks most any trace of the psychedelic rock and soul or bouncy pop styles dominating the airwaves and Billboard charts. Instead, they created a loose concept album which conjured a powerful vision of the history of the American South. (Not bad, considering four-fifths of the group were Canadian.) These finely-wrought musical portraits weren’t through rose-colored glasses, either, drawing subtle parallels between past and present. The term “Americana” wasn’t yet in vogue, but it might as well have been invented for The Band – though, as per Anthony DeCurtis’ new liner notes, Robbie Robertson prefers “North Americana” so as to not leave out Canada!
Whereas the musicianship on Big Pink was often thrillingly ramshackle, The Band had coalesced even more by the time of the second album sessions. Robbie Robertson’s compositional voice shone through loud and clear, as he was responsible for writing or co-writing all twelve original songs from the funky “Up on Cripple Creek” to the panoramic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band was a storytellers’ album drawing on a rich canvas and introducing such memorable characters as an old sailor (“Rockin’ Chair”), a disenfranchised farmer (“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”), a quarrelsome couple (“Across the Great Divide”), and a Confederate soldier named Virgil Caine (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”).
Both music and lyrics were happily varied, again expanding upon the more elegiac palette of Music from Big Pink with tunes lustily raucous (“Rag Mama Rag,” “Jemima Surrender”) and achingly tender (“Whispering Pines”). The ever-searching quintet incorporated sounds inspired by R&B (“Look Out Cleveland”) and jazz (“The Unfaithful Servant”) into their rootsy stew. While The Band played as one, their individual contributions were – and are – impossible to ignore. Manuel and Helm each sang four leads on the album and shared a fifth; Danko took the remaining three. Almost every player was a talented multi-instrumentalist, but Helm’s urgent drums, Hudson’s colorful organ textures, Danko’s confident bass, and Robertson’s distinctive but decidedly unfussy guitar all stand out.
As on 2018’s reissue of Music from Big Pink, the new edition of The Band jettisons the album’s original 1969 mix in favor of brand-new mixes in both stereo (on CD, double vinyl mastered at 45 RPM, and Blu-ray) and surround (on Blu-ray only) by Bob Clearmountain from the original multitrack masters. (Bob Ludwig has handled the superb mastering.) In both 2.0 and 5.1, Clearmountain has honored the spirit of the original version. In his liner notes, Anthony DeCurtis quotes a trepidatious Robertson about the remix: “The idea was to take you deeper inside the music, but this album is homemade. You can’t touch up a painting. It has nothing to do with what you get when you go into a recording studio.” Clearmountain wisely hasn’t “touched it up” so much as offered a new way to experience it. In both stereo and surround, there’s a newfound clarity to the mixes that doesn’t sacrifice their raw spirit, as well as an opportunity to appreciate previously-buried instrumental and vocal parts.
Clearmountain’s 5.1 surround mix is even more adventurous and more discrete than his fine work on Big Pink. On the opening track, “Across the Great Divide,” the woozy brass and evocative organ are placed in the rear channels. Manuel’s drums support Helm’s vocal out front on “Rag Mama Rag,” while the tender picking in the rears on “Whispering Pines” amounts to a comforting cushion of sound. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is one of the most immersive mixes, with the vocals and instrumentation enveloping the listener and drawing one even closer into the story. While the soundstage is believable and vocals and instruments aren’t zipping willy-nilly from one channel to the next, excellent use is made throughout of all five channels.
The new mixes extend to six previously unreleased bonus tracks. The six additional selections on CD 1 are replicated in high-resolution stereo and surround on the Blu-ray including an early version of “Up on Cripple Creek,” alternate versions of two songs (including a radically different “Rag Mama Rag” with a tasty ragtime piano introduction, a markedly different arrangement, and more languid tempo), two instrumental-only mixes, and a cappella “Rockin’ Chair.” Far from being throwaways, the instrumental mixes, in particular, shine in surround where each part can be savored. Richard Manuel’s voice, always one of The Band’s not-so-secret weapons, is out front of the group harmonies on the a cappella “Rocking Chair” with just minimal accompaniment preserved.
The second CD of the box set premieres the complete original rough mixes of The Band’s eleven-song Woodstock set from 10:00-10:50 p.m. on Sunday evening, August 17, 1969. For decades, The Band remained one of the festival’s great mysteries; they were not featured in director Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock film or on the original Woodstock soundtrack releases. In 1994, three songs (“Long Black Veil,” “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” and “The Weight”) were at long last issued on the Woodstock: Three Days of Music and Peace box set, but the group was again absent from the comprehensive 2009 box 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm. The massive 2019 complete Woodstock box Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive included The Band’s set in full as newly remixed by Brian Kehew; this presentation instead offers the original rough mixes. There was some irony to this counter-countercultural group playing Woodstock on a bill with so many flashy acts: “This was not a group centered on a guitar player and a singer who liked to take his shirt off,” per Robertson. Yet there they were on a bill with groups of that milieu (think: The Who), leaving the audience enrapt with seven songs from Big Pink, a “Basement Tape” Dylan cover, a traditional folk melody, and two Motown covers stripped of their pop gloss. The escapism of psychedelia was replaced with a gritty authenticity, but it’s doubtful the audience minded. Such was the power of The Band.
In addition to the Woodstock set, the second disc reprises the seven bonus tracks (the non-LP B-side “Get Up Jake” and six studio alternates) issued on Capitol’s 2000 expanded remaster of the album. Taken as a whole with the six previously unissued bonuses, the box set opens a new window onto the development of these classic songs.
There are copious extras in The Band box, including the fine 1997 Classic Albums documentary about the making of the album; a 7-inch, 45 RPM single of “Rag Mama Rag” b/w “The Unfaithful Servant” in a picture sleeve; and a folder with three striking photographs by Elliot Landy. The squarebound 28-page, LP-sized booklet featuring DeCurtis’ essay also is filled with Landy’s images of the group at work and play. The discs are housed in a gatefold jacket adorned with images of the original master tape boxes. and everything is stored in the gorgeous, textured box with a lift-off lid.
The 50th Anniversary campaign also encompasses a release with just the 2 CDs as well as a standalone release of the album on two 45 RPM, 180-gram vinyl LPs. In any format, the music of The Band remains beautiful, stirring, and timeless: a poignant elegy for the 1960s as well as for the old American South.
2-CD/2-LP/Blu-ray/7″: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / The Band Online Shop
2-CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / The Band Online Shop
2-LP black vinyl: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / The Band Online Shop