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A Musical History

July 30th, 2008

I love box sets. I buy a lot of them. If there’s a box set by any artist I’m interested in, I’ll get it. The truth is I listen to each of them two or three times when I first get them, but after that not so much. Part of the appeal lies in the “extras” that often come with a box set: the rare unreleased tracks, the book or booklet with lots of essays, track information and liner notes, the photos and packaging, etc. But box sets can really run the gamut from flat out fantastic to a complete waste of time. Ideally a box set, if it’s done right, should represent the artist and/or period it covers in such a way that it appeals to someone who’s only marginally familiar with the music and to a true collector. This can be a tricky thing to accomplish. More and more the labels are getting it right, but there’s no guarantee. The worst box set I have is the Steely Dan collection Citizen Steely Dan 1972 – 1980. Not because of the music, the music is great. Because all it really contains is the first seven studio albums in their entirety with one hard to find b-side, one outtake and one demo. The complete lack of rare and/or unreleased material makes this a colossal waste of time, for me at least. I already have all the studio albums. One of my favorite box sets is a 26 CD set from Bob Dylan titled Jewels And Binoculars: The Definitive 1966 Collection. It’s a bootleg, of course, the labels would never indulge in something that extravagant. It collects all of the live recordings (and some studio tracks as well) that exist among collectors from Dylan in 1966.

The Band only made seven studio albums during their career. There is also the stellar live album Rock Of Ages and the farewell concert document The Last Waltz. Their recorded output has been recycled, repackaged, recompiled and rereleased quite a bit over the years. The first CD compilation came in 1989 with To Kingdom Come a two disc set that was marketed at the time as “The Definitive Collection.” For a two disc set it does a pretty good job and even throws in a couple of hard to find tracks. But it was hardly “definitive.” 1994 saw the release of the first box set, Across The Great Divide, a three disc affair. This time around there are two discs of “greatest hits” and one disc of rarities. Very nicely done with a gorgeous booklet containing a great essay by Chet Flippo, nice photos and track information. For those with bootleg tastes the wonderful Crossing The Great Divide (another three disc set released in the nineties) was a treasure trove of rare and unreleased material. In 2000 and 2001 Capital rereleased all of the groups albums once again, this time with tons of bonus tracks, great packaging and detailed liner notes. These really were the “definitive” editions. So, I for one, was not expecting to see this box set arrive in 2005. Did we really need another collection? Well, as it turns out, the answer is a definitive yes. A Music History is one of the most spectacular box sets ever released. Everything about it is simply stunning. Housed in a large 9″ by 10″ hardback book, it’s the perfect tribute to one of the best, most unique bands America has ever produced. Over five CDs and one DVD the producers of this compilations have pulled out all the stops.

True to the title the set is a virtual musical biography of the group. The first disc begins with four tracks recorded with Ronnie Hawkins (when they were known as Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks) recorded in 1961 and 1963. There are eight rare tracks (three of them previously unreleased) recorded under the name Levon & The Hawks in 1964 and 1965. There are tracks from the famous Dylan tour of 1966, Basement Tape tracks and early demos recorded before their first album. A fair amount of this material has never been released before and did not circulate among collectors (at least not the collectors I know). It might be of only passing interest to the casual fan, but for the collectors it’s a gold mine. Discs two and three cover the prime years for The Band, 1968 through 1971, which saw the release of Music From Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright, one of the greatest three album runs by any group ever. One of the things that made The Band so special from the beginning was the fact that they had been playing together for almost ten years before they recorded their first album. Night after night with Ronnie Hawkins, as Levon & The Hawks and with Dylan. I don’t think any other band has ever been so well “rehearsed” for their debut album. Even after packing all the reissued catalog discs with an abundance of bonus tracks enough rare and unreleased material was still found to fill out these discs quite nicely with numerous treats. In fact, of the 102 total tracks on the box set, 32 are previously unreleased. Disc four covers Cahoots (a bit of letdown at the time after their first three albums) and Rock Of Ages. There’s only three unreleased tracks here, one of which is an outtake from the Academy Of Music shows that made up Rock Of Ages. I have a great two CD bootleg titled Academy Of Outtakes that contains a wealth of material from these shows, so it’s a little disappointing they didn’t include a bit more of those tracks here. By the time we get to most of the music on disc five The Band was beginning to come apart. There are a couple of tracks from their triumphant 1974 tour with Dylan (documented officially on Before The Flood), three tracks from their covers album Moondog Matinee and one track from Dylan’s album Planet Waves on which they served as the backing band. There are only three tracks each from their last two albums, Northern Lights – Southern Cross and Islands. I would have liked to have seen Northern Lights – Southern Cross a little better represented here, but that’s a minor detail. It’s a vastly underrated album that I don’t think has ever really gotten it’s proper respect.

The final disc, a DVD, is a great bonus. It contains nine video tracks, most of which have never been seen before. The first piece “Jam/King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” was filmed in Robbie’s studio in Woodstock in 1970 and it’s a real pleasure to watch. There are a couple of tracks from the Festival Express Tour of Canada in 1970 which have now been released on another DVD. There are two tracks from Wembley Stadium in London in 1974 (a bit disappointing) and the last three tracks were recorded in 1976 for Saturday Night Live. Video of The Band is hard to come by, so the disc is a most welcome addition to the box set.

The Band is one of my favorite all time bands. This box set is a near perfect collection of their work from the very beginning to the very end. It’s great for collectors like me that already have everything else they’ve released and it’s great for someone who doesn’t have anything and wants a good compilation of their work. Any true fan could quibble with the song selection on a set like this, but, truth be told, this box set contains the very best of The Band. The 111 page hardbound book is the icing on the cake. Incredible photos. Detailed liner notes. Wonderful essays. You really couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s probably the best box set I’ve ever seen. Kudos to producers Cheryl Pawelski and Andrew Sandoval for doing such a fantastic job and for giving this great band the homage they so richly deserve.

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