What makes an album timeless? I’d argue it’s the ability of the music to constantly reveal more subtleties, delights, surprises, and emotional shadings. Even as the years and decades go by, a timeless album will continue to engage and move you.
That’s unquestionably the case with the Band’s self-titled second release. Fifty years on, the album continues to bedazzle. Which is ironic, since initially it seemed so unassuming. After all, there aren’t any flashy displays of instrumental or vocal prowess. Nor do the songs hit you over the head with hummable hooks and sing-along lyrics. Indeed, after the first few listens you might wonder what all the fuss is about.
But be patient. The Band is an album that takes—and rewards—time. Each song asserts itself on its own schedule. Some take years to appreciate. As the 1969 Rolling Stone review put it, the songs “are diamonds that begin to glow at different times.”
Over time, you realize that every track—from the ribald “Up on Cripple Creek” to the luminous “Whispering Pines” to the achingly mournful “Unfaithful Servant”—is indispensable. Songs that so authentically capture history, like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” or so kinetically convey the tension between hope and trepidation, as does “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” just don’t come along every day. And while every track is a gem on its own, together they conjure a daguerreotype of the pleasures and hardships of life in the American South.
With repeated listens you’ll also discover that the Band, lack of showiness aside, consisted of five consummate, highly versatile artists. Yet each opted to eschew the spotlight in favor of creating a synergistic, organic whole that broke new ground by melding folk, rock, country, bluegrass, ragtime and big band.
Until now, though, you couldn’t fully appreciate each bandmember’s contribution to the aggregate. No matter which edition, format, or remaster of the album you played, the musicians and vocalists remained stubbornly infrangible. This 50th anniversary edition changes that decisively.
For the first time, you can hear the particulars of Robbie Robertson’s feisty guitar licks, Garth Hudson’s organ wizardry, Richard Manuel’s propulsive piano, Levon Helm’s inimitable drum work, and Rick Danko’s complex and McCartney-esque bass lines. You can also feel the ache in the vocals, parse the harmonies, and unravel the covert complexities of the arrangements. The result isn’t merely revelatory, it’s intoxicating.
To achieve this, the original analog tracks were not only remastered by Bob Ludwig but remixed by Bob Clearmountain under Robbie Robertson’s supervision. So now on “Across the Great Divide,” for instance, Garth Hudson’s organ is no longer generic background support. Instead, you can hear his every ingenious twist and turn—and understand how essential they are to the song’s fabric. Similarly, Rick Danko’s bass goes from being blurry low tones to an inspired, distinct line that likewise plays a crucial role.
Some prior versions of The Band have slightly better sonics in specific areas. A little better channel separation here, a tad more top-end extension there. But I wouldn’t trade any of those versions for the 50th anniversary edition’s insights into the intricacies of the Band’s playing and singing, and the uncanny way they all gel.
And that’s just the main album! The box set, which spreads that material over two 45rpm platters, also includes: the same remixed/remastered album on CD, along with inciteful bonus material; the 45-rpm single of “Rag Mama Rag”/“Unfaithful Servant”; worthy liner notes by Anthony DeCurtis, and a reprint of the aforementioned Rolling Stones review; rare photos from the recording sessions; a Blu-ray disc of the documentary Classic Albums: The Band; and a CD of the group’s entire 11-song Woodstock set.
None of these elements is remotely gratuitous; yet the Woodstock disc deserves special mention. No document of this concert has ever before been made public. It’s one of the first times the group performed as the Band rather than as Bob Dylan’s backup band, and it’s charmingly ragged. (To hear the Band at its consummate live best, check out Rock of Ages.) The uniformly excellent songs, culled from older material, get a warm reception from the hippie crowd—especially “The Weight.” Another cause for celebration is the sound, which has a direct, unfiltered quality.
Frankly, it’s criminal that none of these tracks were included in the original Woodstock film or album, or even Woodstock 2. But now you have them as part of this thoroughly conceived, brilliantly executed package. Needless to say, this box set is unreservedly recommended.