When The Band released its debut, Music from Big Pink, in 1968, it was a recording that intended to represent faithfully the songs and the spirit developed during the quintet’s sabbatical from “the revolution”; decamping to the hills of Upstate New York, and more specifically to the basement of a blushing house in Woodstock, to write and play outside of the musical, cultural, social, and political tempests swirling around during that tumultuous era. They teamed with producer John Simon back in New York City and recorded the tracks for that inaugural release by setting up in the studio in a similar fashion to their subterranean digs upstate. The results were immediate and impactful, garnering near universal praise from peers and critics for the record’s genuine and nuanced return to the roots of many American genres (ironic, given the fact that four of the five were, in fact, Canadian).
A follow-up was inevitable and, as with many sequels, highly anticipated. The Band answered with a plainly self-titled collection; its cover adorned with a shade of rustic brown framing a stark black-and-white group photo of the five looking road-worn and pensive. The music inside was equally as charming and unpretentious as on the first, but notable in that all twelve of the tracks were written (or co-written with bandmates) by guitarist/singer Robbie Robertson, whereas Big Pink borrowed three from their former boss, Bob Dylan, and included more prominent contributions from pianist Richard Manuel.
Furthermore, the same homemade quality that inhabited the Big Pink sessions with Simon in NYC surfaced here, as well, for the sophomore effort. It’s somewhat impressive, given that the group had relocated to Los Angeles, California, taking up residence in Sammy Davis Jr.’s pad, bringing along their families, living, writing, and recording in their swanky Hollywood Hills rental. Simon came along as a co-producer, but this go was officially helmed by The Band.
Now, 50 years later, it’s being reissued as a box set that features the original album, remixed in stereo from the original multi-tracks by the highly respected engineer Bob Clearmountain, and includes a variety of outtakes and alternate versions, along with the first official audio release from The Band’s set at the Woodstock festival in August of 1969.
In essence, this makes The Band 50th Anniversary Edition an entirely new collection. Correspondingly, the first conspicuous difference with any previous incarnations is the emphasis Clearmountain has placed in the mix on the vocal performances. In turn, there is a resulting space between voice and instruments that allows for either to shine even more distinctly throughout the dozen classic cuts. No better is this demonstrated than by comparing the three versions included on the two discs of the album’s perhaps most famous song, “Up on Cripple Creek.”
The proper take has lifted the Arkan-soul vocal of drummer Levon Helm just high enough above the wonking funk of Garth Hudson’s clavinet, nodding to a New Orleans’ groove, to allow it freshly renewed appreciation. The bonus instrumental version, with the barely-there ghost of Helm’s vocal, returns the favor to Hudson, showing off the quintet’s dexterity and inherent bounce as a tight, but loose unit. The final version is an alternate take that exemplifies again how connected the five were musically, and how even the smallest changes in cadence and phrasing from Helm made the biggest differences in choosing which version we would all end up hearing. Totaled together, it’s one of the many revelations of such a complete overview of this landmark album.
By spreading out such a blanket with the repertoire, and including prints of select photos from the session and an illustrative booklet with essays from noted scribes Anthony DeCurtis and Ralph J. Gleason- the latter excerpted from an October ’69 Rolling Stone piece- this set easily could be the final word on this brilliant record; the one any fan should have. As a compilation of everything surrounding one of the finest second albums by any artist ever, The Band box set is comprehensive and inclusive, with exceptional fidelity worthy of the masterpiece it’s been hailed as for five decades.