Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005
A Musical History (Capitol)
Sizable, hardbound, with MOMA-quality visuals, novella-style liner notes, and high-gloss, Madison Avenue layout, A Musical History is a beloved volume of literature. Each successive cast of Capitol's reissue net has expanded the Band's pioneering blueprint for modern Americana, and following 2000's estimable catalog upgrade and 2002's The Last Waltz expansion, this 5-CD/1-DVD overview enriches the tale further. Previously unissued on CD or otherwise are 33 of the set's 102 tracks, almost doubling 1994's previous Across the Great Divide box, a 2-CD overview with a rarities disc not necessarily made redundant here. A cache of "song sketches" (aka demos) is particularly mouthwatering, like Richard Manuel's raw vocal on early era blues "Bacon Fat" and Rick Danko's lithe, bobbing "Move Me." The overall pacing is expert Band leader Robbie Robertson produced and while some later numbers might not be considered essential (Garth Hudson's seven-minute space intro, "The Genetic Method"), each cut builds to a greater whole: four Canadians and an Arkansas howler named Levon Helm. Disc one slays, morphing early-Sixties bar rockers the Hawks into Bob Dylan & the Hawks, whose live "Tell Me, Momma" is fire water from the 1966 wellspring. Disc two mostly devotes itself to the Band's 1968 debut LP Music From Big Pink, sprinkled with lost tracks like Dylan and the Band revving up Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home." Disc three follows suit with the majority of Pink's follow-up, The Band, and tracks from subsequent albums on which the luster begins fading. An unreleased collaboration with Van Morrison, "4% Pantomime," and all is forgiven. At the heart of disc four is 1971 live essential Rock of Ages, and disc five rounds up the group's final LPs, more Dylan gems, including a scabrous "Highway 61 Revisited," and The Last Waltz closers. A scrappy, 41-minute DVD, centered around three performances from Saturday Night Live in 1976 the best of which, Richard Manuel crooning "Georgia on My Mind," went unaired is a bonus rather than a well-chosen video compendium. That comes later, hopefully.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the December 16, 2005 issue: In last week's box set review of the Band, A Musical Journey (Music, Dec. 9), Levon Helm was misidentified as hailing (howling?) from Alabama. The drummer is from Arkansas. The Chronicle regrets the error.