Fifty years on, it’s difficult to convey just how much The Band changed the game. As psychedelia and acid rock were exploding, they were mentally and musically galaxies away, sequestered in Woodstock, creating their earthy, rickety fusion of folk, blues, country, old-school rock and soul. While Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger preened, they had no frontman, even though three of them were world-class singers. The five musicians — singer-drummer Levon Helm, guitarist-main songwriter Robbie Robertson, singer-bassist Rick Danko, singer-pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson — had earned their stripes over a decade on the road, most recently as the backing band on Bob Dylan’s first electric tour, where they’d been greeted with an avalanche of boos from betrayed folkies in the crowd. The Band could rock ferociously when they chose to, but laid in the cut on their early albums, rarely soloing and never showboating, working entirely in service to the songs.
The Band were anti almost everything that was happening in music at the time — and the result is two of the greatest albums in the rock canon, their 1968 debut, “Music From Big Pink,” and this, the self-titled 1969 follow-up, often nicknamed “The Brown Album.”
Often viewed as a companion to its predecessor, “The Band” is actually quite different: The influence of Dylan, who wrote or cowrote three songs on the debut, had been superseded by Robertson, and with songs like “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “Rockin’ Chair,” it’s a much funkier, more earthbound and rock-oriented than the ethereal “Big Pink.”
Yet anyone who’s read this far probably knows all that: What matters is whether this lavish 50th anniversary edition is a worthy purchase for fans, many of whom may have bought one or both of the two career-spanning boxed sets or the excellent 2000 CD reissue series, which includes several bonus tracks that are repeated here. Well, this edition includes a clean new remix of the original album by veteran engineer Bob Clearmountain that shakes some dust off of the original mixes, to an extent that may enrage some purists but does provide greater definition on the instruments and vocals. There are 13 outtakes, six of them previously unreleased, which shed light on the development of the songs — highlights include a dramatically slower take of “Rag Mama Rag” and an aching “Unfaithful Servant” — and the requisite big book with liner notes and photos.
But there’s one element that will probably sway any die-hard fan still on the fence: The Band’s 11-song, previously unreleased Woodstock set in full.
Robertson has said the group didn’t feel strongly about the set, which was only their second live performance as The Band, and they are a bit creaky or uncertain in places. But it’s absolutely fascinating for many other reasons: It consists largely of songs from the first album, many of them rarely played live, along with two Motown covers (Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It” and the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”) and two songs from the legendary “Basement Tapes” they’d recorded with Dylan, “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and “Ain’t No More Cane.” And while they stick closely to the album’s arrangements, it’s revelatory to hear these songs, vaunted for their realness, sounding even more real.
But perhaps most of all, there’s the moment: Along with Dylan, The Band is singularly associated with Woodstock, and here they are, in the closing hours of the world-breaking event they’d helped to inspire, playing now-legendary songs that were just a year old at the time. (And to put things in perspective, even an imperfect set by The Band is going to crush one by almost any other group of any era.)
The group wasn’t as tight as they were in this incredible and surprisingly still-unreleased 1970 concert that was partially filmed for Dutch TV, or as elaborate as their 1971 “Rock of Ages” live album or the “Last Waltz” farewell five years later. But you can feel The Band testing itself, stretching its legs, figuring out what it is and what it’s going to become. And 50 years later, you’re there with them.