The Band's second and eponymously titled album from 1969 represents a watershed moment in music history. It was a huge affirmation for the group after the critical and popular success of its debut Music From Big Pink (which I reviewed last year, here and here). Called simply The Band, this sophomore release made a bold statement for the times, packaged in a decidedly un-psychedelic chocolate brown cover with a turn of the century, Mathew Brady-esque, black and white photo of the group looking somber in the rain. The album delivered to the world two instant classic hits -- "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up On Cripple Creek"-- as well as a full album of songs that have only grown in stature over time like fine wine.
These recordings served as something of a wake up call for musicians around the world to get back to the roots after several years of freak-flag-flying excess. Released in September 1969, it is an album that went against the grain of popular culture and inspired most everyone who listened. The Band and its precedessor Music From Big Pink are complete packages that influenced the sound-feel -- and in many cases the physical look -- of many albums to come in the years ahead.
Just take a peek at some of the releases from the following year or so which all featured rustic imagery supporting the often roots-flavored rock music within including The Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead, CSNY's Deja Vu, Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy.
Heck, even George Harrison's epic All Things Must Pass delivered a distinctive back-to-the-countryside feel inside and out. If you stop to think about it, there is clearly a trajectory from (The Band's former boss) Bob Dylan's 1967 post motorcycle accident return John Wesley Harding, which bore a rustic looking black and white cover design to complement the country-folk flavored acoustic music within (recorded around the same time The Band was working on its debut, Music From Big Pink). All of these recordings seem to be connected -- at minimum -- spiritually.
The Band expanded on the club-house vibe they established working on Music From Big Pink in that basement room in Woodstock, NY. Much of The Band was literally recorded in an actual swimming pool club-house room in a Hollywood home rented from Sammy Davis Jr.! That distinct sound influences the feel of the music (and the mixes... more on that later).
So now -- a full 50 years on -- to celebrate the album's anniversary Universal Music has issued The Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set which contains a wealth of amazing music, sights and sounds related to this album. From The Band's official website, we find a handy summation of what to expect in this package:
"The Super Deluxe package features a new stereo mix of the album by Bob Clearmountain from the original analog masters. The package also features the previously unreleased complete "Live At Woodstock" performance from 1969,Classic Albums: The Band documentary, and thirteen bonus tracks. Bonus tracks include six previously unreleased outtakes and alternate versions. The exclusive book features a new essay by Anthony DeCurtis and classic photos by Elliott Landy. The new stereo mix is also cut at 45RPM and available on 180-Gram 2LP alongside a reproduction of The Band's 1969 7-inch vinyl single for "Rag Mama Rag" (b/w "The Unfaithful Servant"). Lastly, there is a 5.1 surround mix and 96/24 high res audio on Blu-Ray."
And it is this final point where we will actually begin our review of The Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set.
If as an album listening experience The Band was noted for that aforementioned "clubhouse" feel -- again, consciously mostly recorded in a single room akin to how the group worked in the Big Pink house near Woodstock NY -- it might be argued that the 5.1 surround sound remix brings the listener deeper into that studio space.
While it was recorded on multi-channel analog tape (I think it was eight track), there are limitations as to what one can expect from a surround sound experience culled from these sources given how it was made. Overall, the surround mix left me very satisfied. While not exactly recreating the soundstage of the club house (as was -- I think quite successfully -- attempted on Neil Young's Harvest album in surround sound), this new 5.1 surround mix still retains much of the intimate feel, especially if you are sitting in the so-called "sweet spot."
The rhythm section has been mostly placed in the front channels as are the lead vocals. The surround channels are mostly used for support and lead instrumentation, from acoustic or electric guitars to the horn section, sometimes sounding quite discrete (which is cool to hear when you move away from the sweet spot and listen to each speaker individually).
On "Jawbone," Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson's parts are highlighted in the rears. The horn section on "Unfaithful Servant" fills up the room from behind the listener while Robertson's acoustic guitar solo feels like you are right there in the studio with him and the group. "King Harvest" rocks madly, with Hudson's organ pulsing on the left side of the room and Robbie pulling up the rear from the back channels. "Whispering Pines" is arguably even more gorgeous and haunting in surround sound.
There are also a bunch of cool bonus tracks -- alternate and early takes, backing tracks, etc. -- in 5.1 surround on this Blu-ray Disc! The quasi a-cappella mix "Rocking Chair" is amazing with the lead and harmony vocals all around you, the listener. The Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set in surround sound is about as close as any of us will get to actually being inside the clubhouse with The Band.
Levon Helm's innovative, propulsive beats on "When You Awake" elevate the song while giving plenty of sonic space for Rick Danko's vocals, Robbie Robertson's Chet Atkins' inspired finger picking and Garth Hudson's lively circus-feel organ. There is nothing typical there and you can, in many ways, better appreciate all the detail and nuance that went into the making of this album when listening to this new 5.1 surround sound remix.
Throughout The Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set it is fascinating to listen -- and hear vividly -- the individual textures that each band member brings to the table, which created this distinctive sound. The presence of the clubhouse is palpable here... Loose drum heads resonate and rattle. Rick Danko's violin floats while Garth Hudson's piano fills the air around you. It is all there.
If you love The Band and surround sound, this is reason enough to buy The Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Box Set. But there is more! In Part II next week I will look at the new Stereo remix both on Blu-ray and audiophile 45 RPM 180-gram double LP versions included in the set.