The Band: The Last Waltz. (48/24) HDtracks.com
Here’s the soundtrack to one of rock’s greatest concert films (along with Stop Making Sense and Woodstock). Its charms are many, including the enduring songs, superior musicianship—especially Robbie Robertson’s herky-jerky guitar and Levon Helm’s gravel-throated vocals—and the amazing guest roster (Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and on and on). Yet the most astonishing thing about The Last Waltz is the chameleon-like way The Band just drops into the perfect style for each guest artist. Without seeing Martin Scorcese’s masterful film, for instance, you could be forgiven for thinking Muddy Waters brought his own backup players.
Still, for all its musical strengths, the original CD is not especially pleasant to listen to. Dynamics are flat, as is spatial perspective. The sound can get rather gritty, too. In 2002, Rhino Records came to the rescue, bestowing upon the album the full deluxe re-issue/re-master treatment. The contrast to the original CD is dramatic. Forget about a veil being lifted; Rhino removed all seven! Dynamics, space, extension (both high and low), pace, and a visceral sense of presence are all are here in spades. So the question for the download becomes: how does it stack up against the Rhino CD? One would expect them to be close. After all, the resolutions aren’t that different— the download is 48k to the CD’s 44.1k—though of course the download enjoys a 24 to 16 bit-depth advantage. As it turns out, these small differences are insufficient to compensate for the superiority of the Rhino re-master, to which HDtracks presumably didn’t have access. Yes, the download is more refined and transparent than the original CD; but it can’t match the openness and verve of the Rhino disc.
That a particular physical disc sounds better than the corresponding download is academic if the disc in question is an audiophile limited-release and now hard to obtain. That’s not the case here. So while this download is good, the superior Rhino CD is readily available. If you don’t have it, you should.