THE BAND: A MUSICAL HISTORY (2005)
CD I: 1) Who Do You Love?; 2) You Know I Love You; 3) Further On Up The Road; 4) Nineteen Years Old; 5) Honky Tonk; 6) Bacon Fat; 7) Robbie's Blues; 8) Leave Me Alone; 9) Uh Uh Uh; 10) He Don't Love You (And He'll Break Your Heart); 11) (I Want to Be) The Rainmaker; 12) The Stones I Throw; 13) The Stones I Throw (Will Free All Men); 14) Go Go Liza Jane; 15) Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?; 16) Tell Me, Momma; 17) Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues; 18) Words And Numbers; 19) You Don't Come Through; 20) Beautiful Thing; 21) Caledonia Mission (sketch track); 22) Odds And Ends; 23) Ferdinand The Imposter; 24) Ruben Remus; 25) Will The Circle Be Unbroken.
For all of The Band's gloriously legendary status — unlike their godfather and mentor, Mr. «I-wrote-more-songs-than-you-ever-heard-in-your-life» Zimmerman, their archived vaults have turned out to be surprisingly low on unreleased treasures. Outside of the regular discography, the only complete archival release in their history was 1995's Live At Watkins Glen, an odd monstrosity that was presumably recorded at the Watkins Glen Festival in July 1973, although, in reality, only two or three tracks were taken from the actual show, the rest being either studio outtakes with cheaply overdubbed applause or live selections from earlier shows. The album, released by Capitol without The Band's consent or even knowledge, is now out of print, and most of its tracks are available as bonus cuts on Moondog Matinee or Rock Of Ages — but the fact that one had to stoop to such a silly forgery in order to make an extra buck on The Band's reputation is quite telling of the state of affairs.
A year before that, Capitol actually put out the first Band-related boxset — the 3-CD compilation Across The Great Divide, with the third disc replete with demos, outtakes, and bits of pieces of The Band's history. This one is also out of print today, replaced by a much stouter collection — 2005 saw the emergence of The Band: A Musical History, now spread across five CDs and one DVD (the latter mostly consisting of otherwise available bits of live appearances, e. g. the three number performed on SNL in 1976 and the material from 1970's Festival Express), and probably containing every single bit of non-regular-LP stuff from The Band that we might ever need to hear. Not that the need would be overtly acute.
Formally, A Musical History is one of those «for-beginners-and-fans-alike» collections that will not properly satisfy either group. The fans will already have most of these tracks on the original LPs — moreover, many of the outtakes here now also feature as bonus additions to the new remastered CD series; beginners, on the other hand, would do much better with a small compilation (or just buy the first two albums anyway). Once I have filtered out standard album tracks, previously unreleased material that has now been converted to bonus tracks, and «tangential» stuff like the «Dylan & The Band» recordings (including, among other things, several tracks from The Basement Tapes and the regular single recording of ʽCan You Please Crawl Out Your Window?ʼ), I was left with a little under 2 CDs length of material — and most of it is rather slim pickings.
The only real bit of treasure, and even that mostly for a historian of The Band, is the first disc, which does indeed trace their musical history throughout the early and mid-1960s — arguably an essential listen for everybody wanting to understand how the band became The Band. Starting with a few sides they cut as «Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks», with Hawkins as the unquestionable frontman and leader; going through the early incarnations of «Levon & The Hawks» and «The Canadian Squires»; and finishing with raw demos recorded in 1967-68 as they were just trying to lift off the ground — this is a thorough and convincing picture of the transformation of an ordinary rock'n'roll outfit into a...
...well, no, not really. To be honest, in the context of whatever was going on in the musical world in the 1960s, most of this first disc sucks: I cannot imagine how anybody would have sensed any seeds of Music From Big Pink in anything on here. The Hawkins-era numbers are pedestrian covers of electric blues and boogie standards — «The Hawk» has always been a much better growler and screamer than singer, and the only point of relative interest are a few scorching garage-rock solos from Robertson... both here and on most of the «Levon & The Hawks» numbers — in the early days, the newly-liberated band was still mostly churning out formulaic boogie-blues like ʽLeave Me Aloneʼ, and only Robbie's stinging, screeching leads stand out: you can easily tell what it was that got Dylan interested in The Hawks in the first place. (Curiously, Bob's own rare instance of lead guitar playing on an early classic album of his — ʽLeopard Skin Pillbox Hatʼ on Blonde On Blonde — is extremely similar in style to Robbie's early solos).
Some of the more impressive of Robertson's early, sketchy attempts at songwriting include the catchy R&B number ʽHe Don't Love Youʼ and the gospel-folk anthem ʽThe Stones That I Throwʼ, but they are still deeply rooted in the clichés of these genres. Things only start changing when we get real close to 1968: ʽYou Don't Come Throughʼ, pitching a Manuel falsetto against a similarly high-pitched guitar melody, shows a first brief, embryonic glimpse into the roots of the sad beauty of Big Pink, and Manuel's own ʽBeautiful Thingʼ is a tender demo that could grow into something bigger, but maybe it was deemed just a bit too waltzy to deserve elaboration. On the other hand, the early version of ʽCaledonia Missionʼ seems to pair the already well-boiled vocal melody with an utterly incompatible arrangement — too fast, too upbeat, too different from the mood of Garth's merry harpsichord accompaniment. No, really, it is all almost as if they just woke up one morning — and found out that they were geniuses, after all. Same thing happened to the Beatles — why couldn't it happen to The Band?
Of the elsewhere unavailable stuff on the other four CDs, there is only a small handful of recommendations I could deal out. The live performance of Woody Guthrie's ʽI Ain't Got No Homeʼ with Bob from the Carnegie Hall concert (January 20, 1968) is more of historical value for Bob than The Band (marking his first live appearance after the motorcycle crash), but is totally enjoyable even regardless of the context. The live version of ʽSmoke Signalʼ is a rare example of a number from Cahoots done live, and done well. Robbie's ʽTwo Piano Songʼ, with Manuel and Hudson manning said pianos, is a pretty piece that transcends genres — the players are trading pop / classical / ragtime patterns between each other, obviously feeling inspired; too bad they never got around to finishing the composition (which could have, among other things, made a damn stately finale for Northern Lights). And ʽHome Cookin'ʼ could have been Rick Danko's only example of a completely self-composed song in the classic era Band catalog — but maybe they decided, like me, that the chorus hook was a tad too reminiscent of ʽJust Another Whistle Stopʼ to be allowed to live.
The rest is mostly technical inclusions — an alternate run through ʽ4% Pantomimeʼ with Van Morrison, a live rendition of Little Richard's ʽSlippin' And Slidin'ʼ, with all the usual reservations about The Band playing visceral rock'n'roll, an early, not-too-different take on ʽAll La Gloryʼ, etc. etc.; not a lot. In the end, the boxset may be more precious for all the packaging, photos, liner notes etc. — these things always have more value as intelligent shelf decorations anyway. But I suppose that if everybody is entitled to this kind of boxset, it would be unfair to delay this honor for the very symbol of Americana, or else Black Oak Arkansas and R.E.O. Speedwagon might get their dues paid first, and that would be truly embarrassing.
Check "A Musical History" (MP3) on Amazon