Bob Dylan, who painted the cover picture for the Band’s 1968 debut, Music from Big Pink, also wrote or cowrote three of its best songs. But if any listeners even flirted with the idea that the group needed him in order to excel, they likely abandoned that notion after the 1969 release of the Band’s terrific eponymous sophomore effort in which Dylan played no part. Guitarist Robbie Robertson solely wrote eight of the dozen songs and cowrote the four others with bandmates Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.
Though this second album is somewhat brighter in tone than the group’s debut, The Band, like its predecessor, evokes the American South of perhaps a century earlier; in Elliot Landy’s photos, the quintet’s members even look like Civil War veterans. (Interestingly, however, the outfit included only one U.S. native, Arkansas-born Levon Helm; the others—Robertson, Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson—all came from Canada.) As on Big Pink, the music seems completely fresh yet simultaneously familiar because it draws on so many traditional genres, including rock and roll, folk, country, R&B, and soul.
The album is loaded with classic tracks, but the cream of the crop are arguably the numbers that fill the original vinyl LP’s first side. They include the remarkable “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which could easily be mistaken for a post–Civil War standard. Like that number, the other selections here are as lyrically colorful as they are musically rich. Among them: the infectious “Rag Mama Rag” (“We could be relaxin’ in my sleepin’ bag / But all you wanna do mama is rag mama rag”), the sweet “When You Awake” (“Snow’s gonna come and the frost gonna bite / My old car froze up last night / Ain’t no reason to hang my head / I could wake up in the mornin’ dead”), and the clavinet-spiced “Up on Cripple Creek” (“Now there’s one thing in the whole wide world I sure would like to see / That’s when that little love of mine dips her donut in my tea”).
Even if the rest of the album were filler, those songs would have been enough to give it a prime place in musical history. But the record also includes “Across the Great Divide,” “Whispering Pines,” “Jemima Surrender,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “Look Out Cleveland,” “Jawbone,” “The Unfaithful Servant,” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” all of which are first rate.
The inevitable 50th anniversary edition of this landmark LP offers lots of reasons to upgrade. For starters, it includes an excellent new mix by Bob Clearmountain from the original multi-track masters. For vinyl fans, the box presents the album on LPs (two of them, because they’re 45 rpm for improved fidelity) and a reproduction of the seven-inch single for “Rag Mama Rag” / “The Unfaithful Servant.” For those who want to learn more about the Band, there’s are also a film about the making of the album and a book that includes a lengthy essay by critic Anthony DeCurtis.
And for those who want to hear more, there are six outtakes and alternate versions, a few of which differ radically from the familiar ones and all of which are previously unreleased. (These are not the same renditions that appeared on a 2000 reissue). Also here: the Band’s entire 11-track performance at the 1969 Woodstock festival, which is also being billed as previously unreleased, ostensibly because this is the original rough mix, not the cleaned-up one that surfaced in Rhino’s recent Woodstock box.
But the biggest reason to pick up this anniversary collection is the package’s Blu-ray, which offers a DTS-HD Master 5.1 mix of the original album and the outtakes. Like many such Blu-ray mixes, it is a revelation: you’ll feel as if you’re sitting with the band and hearing the album as you’ve never heard it before. Harmonies, horn sections, accordion and guitar parts, and percussion that formerly blended together jump out at you from around the room as distinct elements. If you thought The Band was a classic before, just wait till you listen to the Blu-ray. I wasn’t more than a couple of songs into it before I was mouthing the word “wow.”
Simon & Garfunkel, The Lost BBC Sessions & More. Granted, no shortage exists of live Simon & Garfunkel material, and most of it boasts better audio quality than some of this album. That said, if you’re a serious fan, you’re going to want this disc, which features 20 BBC radio performances from January and July 1965, before the duo achieved major stateside success; also here are three Royal Albert Hall tracks from 1970 and four BBC radio rehearsal sessions from an unknown date.
One attraction is the classic “Cloudy” (properly credited here to both Simon and the Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, whose name is omitted on most recordings), which is not available on other live albums. Another draw are the often-noteworthy spoken introductions to many of the tunes. (Simon talks about the meaning of “The Sound of Silence,” for example, and calls “I Am a Rock” “unquestionably my most neurotic song…I finished it and I thought, ‘Oh, man, I can’t be this sick!’”).
Finally, the album includes compositions that to my knowledge are not available on any other Simon & Garfunkel releases, including a cover of Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”; Simon’s “On the Side of the Hill,” which he introduces as an antiwar song, and “Bad News Feeling”; and Simon and Woodley’s “I Wish You Could Be Here,” which was also recorded by the Cyrkle, who are best known for their 1966 hit version of Simon and Woodley’s “Red Rubber Ball.”
Paul Kelly, Songs from the South 1985-2019: Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits. It’s possible you’ve never even heard of Paul Kelly; I confess I was unfamiliar with him myself until 2013, when he collaborated with Crowded House’s Neil Finn on an album called Goin’ Your Way. So how is it that he can fill a two-CD, 43-track greatest-hits package spanning 35 years? It’s because while he may be little known in America, he’s been a star for decades in his native Australia, where this compilation has already topped the charts. And the contents explain why: he is a talented and adventurous singer and songwriter who moves effortlessly among genres and consistently writes from the heart.
Highlights on this anthology—an updated version of an identically titled 2011 collection— include 1985’s Beatlesque “Before Too Long”; 1997’s “Every Fucking City,” about a failed relationship; “You’re 39, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine,” a takeoff on the 1961 Johnny Burnette hit whose otherwise identical title begins with “You’re 16”; “How to Make Gravy,” whose lyric offers a poignant Christmas letter home from a convict; and the previously unreleased “When We’re Both Old & Mad,” a collaboration with Australian country singer Kasey Chambers.
It’s time for America to discover what they’ve known down under for years.