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Listening Report: The Band’s Cahoots, Remixed, Restored, Reimagined, Reinvented.

Mark Smotroff discovers a fantastic new album from 1971…

Continuing the tremendous restoration work on The Band’s classic catalog of influential rock recordings from the late 1960s and ‘70s, their fourth album Cahoots has received the official kid-glove spa-treatment from engineering legend Bob Clearmountain. The results are, frankly, jaw-dropping. 

In my review last year of The Band’s Stage Fright — remixed and restored to its original sequencing for a quite breathtaking new presentation — I discussed the notion of how this new presentation is akin to hearing the album for the first time. In case you missed that review series, please click here and here to catch up. 

Likewise, the new version of Cahoots is indeed like hearing an entirely new album. No… actually, in this case it is not “like” but effectively “is” a completely different listening experience. A different record in so many ways. 

Listening back to the flat sounding 1971 mix — I listened to a green label original Capitol Records pressing — and comparing the two versions, one begins to realize that Cahoots was not a finished record as it was issued back in the day. They were rough mixes at best, resulting an uninspired, boxy and flat final sound. It is not an exciting listen and the songs suffer for it. Actually, listeners like me “suffered” (if you will) in that we really didn’t get to hear what was really laid down during these sessions.  We didn’t hear the complete vision for what Cahoots was about. 

The new remix featured on the Cahoots 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition boxed set absolutely makes this music come alive and jump out of the speakers as never before. Like the best albums by The Band, Cahoots now pulls the listener into their emotional musicality and storytelling which had effectively been buried.  

Made during a difficult period in the group’s career, there is no doubt that some of the performances have a certain blue-hued edginess to them. On the new Stereo mix that feeling pours through in equal dose of pain and joy, often grabbing at the heartstrings. From the opening track “Life Is A Carnival” through to “Where Do We Go From Here?” the first side of the album is now a very powerful listen.“4% Pantomime” feels way more epic and classic than I’d ever heard it sound.  

There is certainly much greater definition of the instruments and vocals in these new mixes. Even listening at low levels you can hear the individual drums, bass, guitars, keyboards and vocals. On the old version you had to turn up the volume real loud just to get an idea of what was going on and then still everything sounded kind of mushed together, thin and unfocused. The drums appeared like Levon Helms was kicking around cardboard boxes instead of his rich woody drum kit.  Rick Danko’s bass felt almost invisible at times. 

Engineer/producer Bob Clearmountain discusses the remix project in the book included with the new Cahoots 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition boxed set, explaining how Robbie Robertson gave him free rein to treat this project as a fresh mixing adventure. Again, The Band apparently never really properly mixed the original version for numerous reasons (detailed in the liner notes) so now Cahoots sounds like a finished recording worthy of group’s legacy.

Clearmountain went further than just adjusting volume levels, mind you. He decluttered many of the arrangements to reveal details that had been inadvertently obscured. There are notable technical restorations such as an inexplicably buried tom tom drum rhythm which was played by Levon Helm on “Life Is A Carnival” but not mic’d on its own individual tracks (leakage from other microphones picked it up). Some songs have different structures now, such as the new version of “Shootout In Chinatown” which fades in. Perhaps my favorite track on the restored album is “Where Do We Go From Here?” which features a gorgeous and newly extended three-part harmony ending which feels exactly right. “Thinkin’ Out Loud” is also reimagined by Clearmountain for the better in this new mix. 

“Smoke Signal” rocks madly and “Volcano” — if you’ll pardon some of these admittedly avoidable reviewer cliches — genuinely explodes with vibrancy. This is partly due to necessary post-production elements such as reverb and delay which were added, helping to bring the track to life. It turns out that when The Band was working on these tracks they were in a brand new studio that was not finished, so it didn’t even have an operational echo chamber!  I’m sure there was other recording studio alchemy (if you will) performed by Clearmountain to resuscitate these tracks.

Allan Toussaint’s spectacular horn arrangements sound bold and ballsy now, as they should!

The Cahoots 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition remix builds up steam like the best albums by The Band and winds up on a powerful inspiring note. 

The vinyl pressing included in the in the set sounds terrific. The 180-gram vinyl is thick, dark, quiet and well centered. If you like listening on Blu-ray Disc, the 96 kHz, 24-bit version Stereo version there is excellent, with a bright but rich consistency. 

The Surround Sound Experience 

Included on the Blu-ray Disc in the Cahoots 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition boxed set is a very special surround mix. Offered in Dolby Atmos (48 kHz, 24-bit) as well as 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio (96/24), I found this presentation super satisfying and in many ways genuinely exciting. As I don’t yet have an Atmos-ready amplifier, I opted for the DTS version for my listening experience.  

In general, the group is presented mostly up front but the rear channels and surround fields are used tastefully for delivering horn section punches, backing vocals, acoustic and electric guitar textures as well as studio ambiance. This is a fun and immersive mix!

“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is very powerful in surround with big acoustic guitars perking up in the rear channels. “Life Is A Carnival” is amazing with the horns peppering the rear surround channels, accentuating the song’s spicy syncopated groove. “The Moon Struck One” is especially gorgeous with Garth Hudson’s organ emanating emotionally from the rear.

“Smoke Signal” is one of my favorites among the surround mixes as it is fairly off the hook, quite aggressive and ultimately a lot of fun!  Expect to hear piano in rear channels. Be sure to be sitting in the sweet spot of your listening space as Robbie Robertson’s guitar solo lifts off into the stratosphere, soaring from the center channel, making the rounds of the room’s surround channels. It gets downright psychedelic at points! Rick Danko’s funky near-lead bass lines — which could have been a little louder in the mix, if I have any critique — are positioned front and center just under Levon’s lead vocal. This song delivers a way more exciting surround experience than even I might have imagined from an album by The Band. 

“Volcano” rocks really hard, buoyed by Allan Toussaint’s dynamic horn section coming up in the rear speakers, punctuated by a ripping sax solo up front. “River Hymn” brings home the Gospel with lovely choral voices flowing from the back of the room like the robes they might be wearing in Church. Its all quite wonderful!

Even the bonus tracks are mixed into surround sound so we get to hear an early take of “Endless Highway” and a kickin’ studio take of the concert favorite “Baby, Don’t Do It.” There are also alternates takes of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “4% Pantomime.”

Like the earlier Band boxed sets, the Cahoots 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is a premium-packaged affair. In addition to the vinyl LP and Blu-ray Disc you get a CD of the new mix as well as a live concert recorded in Paris around the time of this release. You will also get a set of suitable-for framing art print photos and an LP-sized full-color soft-bound book. You even get a reproduction of a rare Japanese 45 RPM single with a picture sleeve (“Life Is A Carnival” backed with “The Moon Struck One).

At the end of the day, the best compliment I can offer about this new Cahoots 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is that — like Stage Fright — I have been playing this album a lot now.  It is hard to underscore the significance of that detail: I am now enjoying and playing an album that I once pushed aside because it underwhelmed me. This new mix allows me to treat it with the same enthusiasm and respect I have for The Band’s first two releases (and the remixed third!). A music restoration project doesn’t really get much better than this.  

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