The Band 50th Anniversary Boxset review - an album where the stars aligned
In these days of rushed judgments and inflated language, the term classic has lost some of its status. We reach for it without thinking. But when The Band, fresh from their bar-band and Dylan backing band apprenticeship, released their eponymous second album 50 years ago on September 22nd there was no shortage of voices applying the critical lather and time has proved them right.
In his glowing review for Rolling Stone legendary critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote: “It is full of sleepers, diamonds that begin to glow at different times.… Little things pop up unexpectedly after numerous listenings and the whole thing serves as a definition of what Gide meant by the necessity of art having density.”
He was prescient. All those years later it is remarkable how the album continues to replay close listening and to influence succeeding generations of those drawn to Americana.
For me it is a desert island disc. I was a boy when it was released. I hear things differently now. Albums, of course, stand still. They are a fixed document of their time. Their reception, however, can change. It is fair to say that the South is portrayed sympathetically, most notably in The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song that guitarist and main songwriter Robbie Robertson wrote after visiting the family of drummer and singer Levon Helm in their solidly southern state of Arkansas.
America at the time was gripped by great social upheaval. The anti-war movement and inner-city racial turmoil dominated the headlines. As such this fond depiction of the southern pastoral was not without issue. But the album’s championing of the common man - women are at best bit players - and a degree of ambiguity, served to obscure any thought of racism. But, on reflection, there is a disturbing absence. Apart from the ever mysterious Unfaithful Servant, the black voice goes unheard in these songs; the spectre of slavery and its succeeding era of Jim Crow repression are not set against the bucolic settings of Up On Cripple Creek or Rockin Chair. Granted there are hints. Look Out Cleveland warns of storms coming through Cleveland in the north and Houston in the south while the gritty anger of King Harvest Has Finally Come reveals a greater sense of unease heightened by a memorable Robertson guitar break.
There were 12 tracks, six on each side, all characterised by great singing, not least Richard Manuel’s haunting vocal on Whispering Pines and a wonderfully inventive production by John Simon. The album, however, was a paradox. Although the sound was strikingly new the songs seemed old, referencing an “astonishingly wide variety of American vernacular traditions from days gone by, ranging from ragtime to old-time gospel, country to blues,” as the sleeve notes from a 2005 boxset.
Those 12 original tracks have now been expanded to 36 in the new boxset (still illustrated by Elliot Landy’s evocative photographs) with an array of alternate takes - “the sound of us learning to play the songs,” quips Robertson - plus 11 live tracks drawn from their performance at Woodstock; for contractual reasons these were never part of the official Woodstock film or audio. The music has also been remixed to a new level of technology-enabled clarity which is actually quite revealing. And they are available in a range of packages, cd, blu-ray and vinyl.
As for the band, three have departed the stage, Helm (cancer), Rick Danko (heart attack) and Manuel (suicide) leaving just Garth Hudson and Robertson. Although considered among the great American bands, ironically four of them were/are Canadian. And though they recorded much else of note, The Band remains the album where the stars aligned.