Preparing for this surround sound portion of my review of the new deluxe edition boxed set of The Band's Music From Big Pink, I first went back to an earlier version of the album released in 2002. There, on the short lived DVD Audio format, the whole album had been presented remixed into 5.1 and for what it was, it sounded quite good. But also, it wasn't quite as much of a revelation as one might've hoped. It was good but not mind blowing. Not surprisingly, it quickly became something of a collectors item as it wasn't widely available (at least in my experience... it took me a while to find a copy!).
Taken at face value, the notion of remixing an album like "Music From Big Pink" into surround sound may seem on the surface like an unlikely choice. But if you consider the period in which it was made and the nature of the music recorded, it makes a lot of sense. The new 5.1 remix included on a Blu-ray Disc in the super deluxe 50th Anniversary edition of Music From Big Pink delivers a sense of grandeur to the music only hinted at in the earlier DVD Audio version. The new 96 kHz, 24-bit 5.1 surround remix opens up all the instruments and brings the music out into the room without being gimmicky. All things considered, everything breathes a lot more which is a big deal (for me at least, as the original mix, at least as presented on the 1968-era vinyl pressings sounded pretty claustrophobic to my ear.... this was a topic I discussed in the first part of this review). The bass is full and round, the acoustic and electric guitars are big and you even hear a bit of amplifier tonality coming through (especially for the latter).
The songs -- which were always great, no question there -- now take on additional majesty, a presence they rightly deserve. Classics like "This Wheel's On Fire" and "I Shall Be Released" now sound as epic high-fidelity production-wise as the underlying songwriting. The hit song "The Weight" sounds positively huge... Its all heavier but also lighter.
Following are some snapshot notes of what to expect based on my initial listens: "Chest Fever" presents the core band up front and center (basically stereo) and in the rear you'll hear organ reflections, vocal harmonies and even some prepared piano or organ sounds. "This Wheel's On Fire" is perhaps the most psychedelic of the mixes, with funky keyboard percolating back to front -- sometimes left, sometimes right -- and the guitars coming from the rear. "To Kingdom Come" features cool guitar swells and piano in rear (and is notably more impactful than on the DVD Audio version, btw). "Caledonia Mission" finds acoustic guitars and piano in the rear channels -- sweet amplifier tones evident here.
"The Weight" is neat in surround sound with an acoustic instrument (I think Mandolin, but I may be wrong) opening things up in the right front channel followed by positively huge Tom Tom drum hits to the center left. The rhythm section is dead center and organ swells emerge gently from the rear. This is quite discrete at times and remarkably clean sounding. On the DVD Audio disc, the mix is less precise and at times hissy. "I Shall Be Released" has an air of elegance around it, with the piano opening from the rears in a more textured manner; this music sounds flatter on the DVD Audio version.
And so it goes on the new Blu-ray Disc surround sound remix included with the 50th anniversary boxed set of The Band's Music From Big Pink,
But.. wait.. there's more!
The Bonus Tracks
On both the high resolution Blu-ray Disc and the CD you get to hear just six bonus tracks, but they are all really wonderful (and its six more than we got on the DVD Audio Disc, which had exactly zero bonus tracks!). The three outtakes which didn't make the final cut for the original LP are fun! "Long Distance Operator" and "Key To The Highway" are nifty rockers. "Yazoo Street" is my favorite as it pre-echoes the sound that Little Feat perfected in the early-mid-1970s on songs like "Dixie Chicken," infusing a New Orleans shuffle with a Bo Diddley rock sensibility. A totally fun tune, I can also hear why it was left off the album as it doesn't quite fit in with the more Appalachian-flavored proto-roots Americana feel of the rest of the album.
There are alternate takes of "Tears of Rage" and "Lonesome Suzie" included but perhaps the most revealing moment comes is the the final, humbling previously unreleased mix of "I Shall Be Released" presenting just the vocals. Absolutely haunting.
Just One More Thing...
Also included in the set is a reproduction of the first single release by The Band: "The Weight" backed with "I Shall Be Released." Curiously, at the time of its original issue they didn't even know the name of this group -- nothing had been decided -- so if you look at the label it doesn't actually say "The Band" on it, but instead lists the names of the group members! For a new unknown group, this was pretty remarkable but then, they weren't exactly "unknown" in the classic sense -- they had been Bob Dylan's back up band during an early career pinnacle. Also, Dylan's presence on the album was heavy with three songs written or co-written -- and cover art painted -- by him). So this is a pretty neat recreation of that single right down to the period orange-yellow swirl Capitol Records label and the type of outer sleeve the single likely came in at the stores.
Of course this version is much more super deluxe, in keeping with the set aesthetic so the vinyl is thick and dead quiet and the outer sleeve thicker cardboard (the original was likely a paper sleeve). But of course you'll want to know that it sounds as great as it looks, featuring the new 2018 Stereo mixes of the songs. It sounds super punchy, must say; I admit that part of that buzz may just be my enthusiasm for seven-inch singles! I didn't compare-contrast, but I suspect the 12-inch vinyl version of the songs would sound better technically.
So, there you have it. The 50th anniversary boxed set of The Band's Music From Big Pink is a fine tribute to a classic album, one which respects the original version while updating the fidelity for future generations to discover and appreciate in all its glory.