This collection calls attention to much of the group’s best nature.
The Band took a name that’s simultaneously self-effacing and self-aggrandizing, depending on how you say it. Whichever tone works best, it does call attention to the collective nature of the group. It’s difficult to find more than a few other bands whose members all feel so necessary. By the time of its 1968 debut album Music from Big Pink, The Band had a solid history behind it, primarily working first with Ronnie Hawkins and then with Bob Dylan. A year later, they’d put out their self-titled follow-up (popularly known as “The Brown Album”), a step that showed them coming increasingly into their own. Fifty years later, the latest iteration of the album has arrived with a few new insights, an historic concert and, of course, one of rock’s most important recordings.
The Band’s first two albums vie for supremacy in their catalog, but the second release moves away from Dylan’s songwriting and into territory that sprung into the world fully-formed, Athena-like, if an imaginary version of Levon Helm bursting out of Robbie Robertson could be “Athena-like” rather than just a Scorsese coke dream. The album develops a particular and somewhat mythic world, full of rural Southern characters, curious behavior and a sound that had never existed before while sounding like the roots of everything. Robertson’s lyrics stay concrete enough that you could probably find a plaque locating each song, but abstract enough that the fiction of the whole space maintains, sometimes comic and sometimes dark with longing.
The record overflows with classics, from opener “Across the Great Divide” to dance tune “Rag Mama Rag” to historical lament “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Five decades on, the only track that struggles is “Jemima Surrender,” which once played as a lascivious joke but rings flat in the #metoo era. Even so, the melody delivers such an earworm that a certain charm remains. For a dozen songs, one of rock’s greatest bands sounds nearly flawless.
But we know all this. Any album that (deservedly) gets a 50th anniversary edition has little left to uncover, and the value of a new release (aside from a new mix) lies in its bonuses. In this case, The Band as a whole has little left to reveal. Between recordings as the Hawks, the massive amount of material with Dylan (including the astonishing The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete) and the presence of previous CD bonus material, we have the group covered. The alternate takes here mostly fit the narrative, but even so there’s plenty of exciting material. A piano-driven “Rag Mama Rag” leads the way along with a vocal-focused take on “Rockin’ Chair.”
The real treasure, then, comes with the inclusion of The Band’s complete Woodstock performance in its first official release. Oddly, the group’s actual performance at the festival has received little attention. Dylan and The Band’s presence in the town was a factor in the event’s location, but the group didn’t appear in the movie that provided such iconic images. The Band didn’t have a Who-at-sunrise or a Hendrix anthem or even an unlikely but contextually perfect appearance like Country Joe and the Fish or Richie Havens. The Band, true to form, were simply The Band.
As such, it’s a strong performance, notable in this set for its lack of songs from The Band. The group, despite the half-decade or so of scintillating live music they’d performed before Woodstock, sound oddly… fine. There’s a catch from our perspective: they have to compete against recordings like Rock of Ages, Before the Flood and, in its own way, The Last Waltz. Each of those tops the Woodstock performance (a later association with Allen Toussaint didn’t hurt). Even so, a Band performance that doesn’t quite reach the heights of those records (which, in some cases, compiled content from multiple shows) is still stellar.
The compilers of this anniversary set made an excellent choice in including the Woodstock show, not only for its historical significance, but also for its ability to fill out the listening experience. The rest of the set shows where the Band was in the studio, while these tracks show where they were on stage. The musicians are clearly at ease with each other, but they haven’t quite converted their albums into a powerful show. And we get that glimpse without hearing any of the album’s songs for a third or fourth time. If the typical reissue offers plenty of slight variations on each tune, this one benefits from offering a whole different – yet relevant – set of music.
The 50th anniversary reissue system has become its own market. Every moderately significant album will likely see an expansion into a couple discs, with a steady supply of massive sets for serious fans to buy and study before only wearing out disc one. The Band reissue hits the right tone. The main album is prioritized, the set is manageable (not that we’d complain about a massive release if warranted), and the bonus material enhances our listening experience immediately and with its replayability. Whichever way you listen, the collection calls attention to much of the group’s best nature.