The Band was among the last groups to have any kind of mystique as the 1960s drew to a close. Their songwriting had a deceptive simplicity and formidable substance at a time when the musical epoch of the 1960s was beginning to collapse into mere playacting. Their reputation has not always reflected this. Much of the lasting popular acclaim that eluded The Band went to Bruce Springsteen. A new set of rereleases may yet address this imbalance.
The Band's catalogue has been carefully remastered using, with few exceptions, first generation master tapes under the direction of The Band's surviving members, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson. Each of the Band’s first four — Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright and Cahoots — has been expanded to include chronologically appropriate, previously unreleased and in some cases previously undocumented recordings. (A newly-released Greatest Hits compilation includes remastered tracks from the second four LPs, reissued in a second batch in 2001.) Rob Bowman’s comprehensive liner notes carefully cover the period in which each LP was recorded, cataloguing images of promotional poster art, picture sleeves, label scans, and previously unused photos. The result compares to the completeness of Rhino’s Monkees reissue campaign or the Demon series of Elvis Costello remasters, although one innovation developed for the latter would have greatly improved each album’s sense of continuity: the insertion of a brief pause between the end of the original LP and its bonus selections. The effect of the climax of Music From Big Pink, “I Shall Be Released,” is diminished by the lack of space between it and the disc’s first bonus track.
Music From Big Pink is the most essential of these remastered CDs even before considering its nine bonus tracks, which include heretofore unused songs that became familiar on Dylan’s Basement Tapes (“Yazoo Street Scandal,” “Katie’s Been Gone,” “Long Distance Operator” and “Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)”) and the exceptional outtake “Ferdinand The Imposter.” That Dylan’s influence is written all over Music From Big Pink hardly needs mentioning: “I Shall Be Released” is one of the quintessential Dylan interpretations, only surpassed by famous Dylan covers by the Byrds and Jimi Hendrix. Two other Dylan collaborations arising from the basement of the house in West Saugerties, New York feature prominently: “Tears Of Rage” (cowritten with the late Richard Manuel), which provided Music From Big Pink with its dramatic opening, and the penultimate track from the original lineup, “This Wheel’s On Fire” (written with the late Rick Danko, made familiar to millions by its later use as the theme to Absolutely Fabulous). Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight” and “To Kingdom Come” are equally notable.
The Band is augmented mostly by alternate mixes and unused takes (apparently, less was left on the cutting room floor after the Big Pink/Basement Tapes period); only “Get Up Jake” (later used, in mono, as the B-side for the Moondog Matinee single “Ain’t Got No Home”) is a previously unreleased selection in a stereo mix The Band themselves engineered. Few have managed to tap into the elusive Americana The Band intuitively enveloped into their second LP (in spite of their mostly Canadian origins, they knew the USA better than natives). The songs that comprised their second album, especially “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Whispering Pines” and the bitter closing “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” encapsulated a century of North American experience forgotten by what the counterculture became.
©2001 Rodney E Griffith. All rights reserved.