Say what you will about Robbie Robertson’s rosy-hued vision of the Band prior to and including The Last Waltz, and how he’s gone on to milk that decade-long period with compilations, reissues, and box sets, but you have to admit he succeeded on all levels with the 2005 release of the six-disc A Musical History, as thrilling and revelatory a compilation that has come out in recent memory. Loaded with classic tracks, live performances, much-adored obscurities, and long-lost rarities, the set hammered home the Band’s undeniable impact on popular music, from those nascent days as Ronnie Hawkins’s backing band the Hawks, to the legendary run as Bob Dylan’s electric backdrop, to the Woodstock years that would yield a spectacular run of classic albums which mined a century’s worth of American popular music, to that wonderful yet sad Thanksgiving 1976 performance in San Francisco that had everyone save for Robertson reluctant to break up. Despite the fact that the Band’s post-Robertson period was completely ignored by Robertson when compiling the set, a small hint of the deeply bitter acrimony between he and drummer Levon Helm, A Musical History brilliantly succeeded at what it set out to do, to edify the neophytes, and to send the completists into fits of euphoria.
Such a successful retrospective makes the new collection The Best of A Musical History all the more frustrating. Such single-disc “best of the box set” compilations have been done before, with varying degrees of success, but the ones that did do well (the Byrds’ imperfect yet solid collection from the 1990 box set, Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits 1970-1978, culled from the 2004 Black Box remasters, to name a couple) knew which audience to target, dishing out nothing but the classic staples that many folks desire. The Best of A Musical History, on the other hand, has no idea what it’s doing. Compiled by Robertson, the collection is a befuddling hodgepodge, with nowhere near enough classic songs to appeal to the “greatest hits” crowd, and nothing that the die-hard fans haven’t already heard on the box set. It could very well be the most pointless compilation of the year.
That said, the music inside is glorious. Of the 19 tracks, only five are what would be considered as Band standards: we get the ever-ubiquitous (yet never tiresome) “The Weight”, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”, featuring pianist Richard Manuel’s impassioned vocal delivery, the achingly beautiful “Stage Fright”, the Dixieland-tinged “Life Is a Carnival”, and the legendary take on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. However, with no “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “The Shape I’m In”, or “Ophelia” (to name just a few), this aspect of the Band’s catalog is woefully incomplete.
The real treats, though, are the other odds and sods that pepper the album. The 1963 Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks single “Who Do You Love” is scorching, and hints at the fiery greatness of the Hawks’ stint with Dylan in 1965-66. Manuel channels Ray Charles on the endearing, R&B-infused “He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart)”, while the great 1965 Dylan single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” shows just how tight the band had become in such a short time span. The much-loved rarities “Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Beakfast)” and “Don’t Do It” are present, as are previously-unreleased nuggets such as an alternate version of “All La Glory” and the fabulous Van Morrison collaboration “4% Pantomime”. Recorded in Calgary, Alberta during the infamous Festival Express Train Tour, “Slippin’ and Slidin’” showcases the Band at its most ferocious; conversely, the CD closes with glimpses at the quintet’s more tender side, first with Robertson’s solo piano tune “Twilight (song sketch)”, and then with bassist Rick Danko’s drop-dead gorgeous performance on the dreary-eyed “Home Cookin’”. Compared to the wealth of rarities on the nearly seven-hour box set, however, this is merely the tip of one mighty iceberg. Had this CD been comprised entirely of the set’s rare material, then Robertson might have been on to something.
Appended with a DVD containing five of the nine video clips found on the original box set, The Best of A Musical History makes for a nice little mix CD, filled with idiosyncratic little touches, but it’s difficult to think of any reason for anyone, even the completists, to spend money on this release. Those eager to hear A Musical History would be better off avoiding this CD and saving up for the pricy box instead (besides, it’s ridiculously easy to, erm, sample such a release online these days); the folks who want the popular songs would be better off buying 2002’s Greatest Hits, and as for the longtime fans, well, this release is a complete waste of time. The music gets an A-plus, but the execution gets a woeful D-minus.