This five-CD/one-DVD set spans the most important years of the Band's existence, from its days with Ronnie Hawkins to The Last Waltz's curtain call. It's both a lavish dedication and definitive documentation of the Band's legacy.
"Against a cult of youth they felt for a continuity of generations; against the instant America of the '60s they looked for the traditions that made new things not only possible, but valuable; against a flight from roots they set a sense of place. Against the pop scene, all flux and novelty, they set themselves: a band with years behind it, and meant to last."
-- Greil Marcus on the Band, from Mystery Train
We know they were there, that they had their hands in history's filing cabinet.
We know their presence, no matter how clandestine, was indissoluble from the times. They were Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns, silent architects and archival revisionists, supporting characters and, later, leads that commanded marquee cooperation. We know they shape-shifted from juke joint blues to Impressions-istic soul revue, from old timey apparitions to vicious swamp-funk stalwarts.
They're identifiable by names and respective roles Rick Danko, bass, vocals; Levon Helm, drums, mandolin, vocals; Garth Hudson, keyboards, horns, accordion; Richard Manuel, piano, drums, vocals; Robbie Robertson, guitar, vocals but nonetheless, is this all enough to prove that a band this versatile, this mutably legendary, even existed? Listen to "Tears of Rage", the opening track on their debut album: it lifts like a time-capsuled meadow fog, as if archaism has been given the deed to modern-day significances. This is the product of men older than themselves, singing from beyond the agreed-upon boundaries of mortality.
The Band: the name alone (so unassuming, so simple, so obvious) speaks to the group's concept of communal anonymity. The Band could never be defined by one man's actions; if they ever accommodated any kind of definition, it was one overwhelmed by mythic mystery. It was an anonymous accomplice in Bob Dylan's amplified plot to set fire to rock 'n' roll's landscape anonymous not in how it carried out incendiary performances (like the ravenous "Royal Albert Hall" show documented on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4) but in how it relished the supporting role without crowding Dylan's spotlight.
The Band claimed no responsibility to the upheaval it had incited and instead descended into a more secretive anonymity, hermetically woodshedding new material in upstate New York. It was there, far removed from anything resembling the society of popular music and occasionally in the company of Dylan, that the group would fortify its bond and unearth its true identity. The resulting album, Music From Big Pink, gave little indication of a relevant connection to the realities of 1968. Rob Bowman, in his liner notes to Big Pink's 2000 CD reissue, wrote: "The name of the group, the way it dressed, the full-panel picture of four generations of its next of kin, the lyrics and the music were as far removed from the conventions of that time . . . as possible." Starless anonymity: it could have been anyone.
But the Band wasn't just anyone. It had developed into a distiller of compatible genres, not to mention a ferocious rhythm section, one entrenched in groove and communion. The sessions that predated Big Pink, some of which made their way onto The Basement Tapes, saw the groove, a homegrown pocket of barn owl funk, give birth: "Ain't No More Cane", "Yazoo Street Scandal", and "Don't Ya Tell Henry" were rhythmic watersheds, the sound of a collective translating old Americana into the language of rhythm and blues. Those songs would beget "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", "Up on Cripple Creek", and "Don't Do It" the latter an old Holland-Dozier-Holland song, originally recorded by Marvin Gaye as "Baby Don't You Do It" that became one of the Band's most ferocious and undeniable live statements. As if Helm's impeccably tasty drumming wasn't enough, dig Danko's bass bumps its ass along the kick drum's indentation on tunes like "To Kingdom Come" and "Up on Cripple Creek".
The shared sense of communion, stronger in the earlier days before the complications of fame came calling, was another key factor to the Band's sound. They faced each other when they played in spaces like Big Pink (the divisive structure of recording studios would initially impede their vibe) and played with an all-for-one collectiveness. Their voices (Manuel's plaintive and painful, Danko's like a wrinkled porch dog, Helm's brazenly embodying the Southern characters that Robertson's songs evoked) embraced each other on instinct, coming and going at will, not bound to the song's contract but the music's. In the choruses to "Tears of Rage", Danko's and Manuel's voices enter roughly one second apart; in the first line of the chorus on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", all of the vocals come in a second or two later than the song's structure dictates they should.
Even though most other bands would focus on tightening their harmonies, these discrepancies don't feel wrong. No frontman or star dominated the group (it is, after all, the Band) and as a result, one of its more subversively radical elements was the co-existing of stylistic fluctuations its veritable description of unity in action.
The Band's recordings have been collected numerous times, most notably on box sets To Kingdom Come (1989) and Across the Great Divide (1994), but A Musical History should be the definitive, big-picture, last word on the group's magnificent music. Executive produced by Robertson, A Musical History goes deep, offering up an intensive study of the Band's evolving identity over five CDs and one DVD. For neophytes, the box set offers a sense of efficient finality: it includes the Band's crucial first two albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band (albeit with some songs in either demo or live form), along with the most crucial selections from every other album up through The Last Waltz.
For diehards, A Musical History is positively essential: besides the beautiful hardcover book (which includes over 100 pages of photographs, track information, and extensive liner notes by Rob Bowman), the set boasts 33 unreleased tracks. Disc One begins with the Band's first real gig as Ronnie Hawkins's backing band the Hawks and moves into their scrappy R&B period as Levon & the Hawks. Songs like "Leave Me Alone", "Uh Uh Uh", and "He Don't Love You (And He'll Break Your Heart)" (the latter a seamless patchwork of Ray Charles and the Impressions) are strong reminders that the Band, while thought of as an originator of contemporary Americana, was really an R&B group at heart. Elements of soul and gospel are glimpsed in the song sketches of "(I Want to Be) The Rainmaker" and "The Stones I Throw", the former a slice of endearingly nonsensical psychedelia and the latter an attempt at Staples Singers-esque universality.
Other unreleased highlights include early, sparse versions of "Jemima Surrender" and "All La Glory", as well as some smoldering live tracks from the Royal Albert Hall in 1971 ("Strawberry Wine", "Look Out Cleveland") and the Rock of Ages show (a rollicking run through Cahoots' "Smoke Signals"). The DVD bears even greater gifts: footage of a wicked tear through "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" from Robertson's Woodstock home in 1970; "Don't Do It" from the Rock of Ages record (!), recently discovered, and worth it for the look of absolute fearful dedication on Helm's face as he wrings his way through the lyric and then works his frustration out on the ride cymbal; a couple of crowd-rousing songs from the "Festival Express" tour; and the Band's three-song appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1976, quite near the end of its road, but alive enough to deliver a shaken version of "Stage Fright".
Regardless of one's opinion on Robertson's selfish mishandling of the Band's communal legacy, he's done a tremendous job of promoting that legacy in one of its most attractive and authoritative offerings. A Musical History is about geneses and mutations, a library of quietly orchestrated innovations. It's a tale of how anonymity was wrangled into something concrete and singular, something of the times and exponentially for the rest of time. The definitive proof is here, in this extravagant pudding, confirming what we know to be true and yet still widening the Band's burden of intrigue.