2005 / Music

Review: The Band Box Set Chronicles Group’s Forgotten Achievements

New Box Set Includes 5 CDs, 1 DVD

For any artist, there is no greater enemy than time.

Photo: Elliott Landy/Capitol Records

Photo: Elliott Landy/Capitol Records

Whatever an artist creates, time finds a way to erode. Statutes crumble, paintings fade and vinyl wears out. Often, all that’s left are a few legends. And even legends fade in time.

With the clock running, a new box set devoted to ’60s roots-rock pioneers the Band aims to re-enshrine this largely forgotten group and immortalize their musical triumphs in a manner that goes deeper than seeing their bearded mugs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The box only partially delivers on its promise.

Once, the Band was among the elite of the classic rock period. The five-some had hit records that flew in the face of the psychedelic era, headlined some of the ’60s most famous festivals (Woodstock, Isle of Wight, Watkins Glen), and toured the nation’s arenas in the Olympian style befitting the Stones or the Band’s former boss/mentor Bob Dylan.

Three decades later, the Band and the music that they made is now just a sidebar in the greater Dylan story. They are known only to a few aging hippies and the combo’s influence is felt only by select alt-country bands.

To turn this perception around, “A Musical History” was just released to capitalize on the buzz generated by PBS Dylan documentary that was televised last week. With some record stores reporting that Dylan’s albums are flying off the shelves, perhaps some will also be curious to pick up the musical exploits of his one-time backing group too.

Consisting of five CDs (totaling tracks 102 tracks — 37 of which are previously unreleased), one DVD, and an 108-page book, the box set traces the group’s 16-year journey from the dive bars of Ontario in the early ’60s to their final, all-star hooray in San Francisco in 1976 that became the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film, “The Last Waltz.” Listeners follow along as the group’s matures from young punks playing for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins to their hell-raising years as Dylan’s sidemen and then their own rise and fall as the Band.

One can’t help but feel energized listening to guitarist Robbie Robertson deliver stinging blues guitar licks on the cover of “Who Do You Love” from when the group was supporting Hawkins. His guitar work grows even more brazen and incisive when he’s backing Dylan, but by the time the group starting recording as the Band, Robertson’s playing is completely restrained. His pinched style only jumps forward like a coiled spring for brief moments. The same growth is apparent in his bandmates.

At the same time, we can hear Robertson and vocalist-pianist Richard Manuel finding their feet as songwriters with the recordings of several musical rough drafts. Promising sketches like “Beautiful Thing” or “You Don’t Come Through” would propel them to come up with a series of masterworks. Later, as the ’70s progressed, you can hear the change in the group’s sound. They slowly shed their rustic, preacher outfits for polyester shirts and leisure suits. While Manuel seemed to stop writing completely, Robertson’s songs became inconsistent.

Along the way, there are several showpieces that are just fun to hear. There’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” the single that was the first studio product of the Dylan/Band union that presages many of the sonic overgrowth on Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde.” A live cut of Dylan and the Band playing a rollicking cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” comes across like a barn burner. “Get Up Jake” is a sing-able leftover from the second album that is sounds like a cousin to “Up On Cripple Creek.”

But in its mission of underlining the Band’s importance, “A Musical History” suffers from a divided makeup, functioning as part rarities collection and part greatest-hits rehash. This strategy is ill conceived in that most people who are merely curious about the Band wouldn’t drop in the neighborhood of $80 for a box set. For the super fans, they must make it through far too many renditions of songs from the Band’s first and best two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band,” to hear the coveted outtakes. As a testament to the group’s greatness, it makes for a weak argument.

Another disappointment is the box set’s book. The book was penned by Canadian rock journalist and (Robertson loyalist) Rob Bowman, who also wrote the linear notes for the reissue of all the Band CDs a couple of years ago. And once again, Bowman tells an interesting but slanted story that keeps to the Robertson party line. According to Bowman, the other members of the group, Dylan, or other associates are just one-dimensional characters that acted in the Robertson story. The Band members just performed their assigned roles as Robertson played the group’s svengali, a country-rock Duke Ellington.

A bonus is the DVD, which offers clips of the group performing throughout their years, and considering the rareness of Band footage out there, there’s little to complain about here. The nine selections include a pair of songs from the Band’s appearance on the Festival Express tour of Canada in 1970 (a movie of the tour that featured other Band performances was released last year), a 1974 show in London and three songs cut during the 1976 season of “Saturday Night Live.” Surprisingly, the “SNL” songs are the most enjoyable mostly because the group sounds solid, fighting back against its decline. One question: Why is the Band’s sublime set from Woodstock 1969 — which was filmed — not on here?

The conclusion of the Band’s story, (and one largely omitted in “A Musical History” or its book, is the successive tragedies that befell them. For their landmark albums, the group members paid a hefty personal cost. Some battled drug and alcohol problems for years, and songwriting disputes would cleave this band of brothers into two camps. While Robertson is now movie and music industry insider, his partners strove to make livings in the years since “The Last Waltz.” Manuel committed suicide in 1986 during a reunion tour and vocalist-bassist Rick Danko died prematurely in 1999. The survivors, vocalist-drummer Levon Helm and keyboard player Garth Hudson, have endured several bankruptcies.

And although “A Musical History” doesn’t succeed in chiseling the Band into rock’s Mount Rushmore, it might encourage listeners to take a look at their albums so they can see why they deserve to be.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2005 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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