A Musical History

The Band

A Musical History is the third box set from The Band, and perhaps the final word on one of America’s finest musical institutions. Painstakingly compiled and pieced together by guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, this five-CD-plus-bonus-DVD extravaganza contains no less than 37 previously unreleased tracks, including live and studio tracks. The DVD features unreleased concert performances, a studio jam, and three songs performed on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976. The box, resmbling a hardbound volume fit for a library, comes packaged with a 108-page book chockful of previously unseen photos, memorabilia, and a cover painting of The Band by world-renowned artist Ed Ruscha.

While opinions vary on which songs exemplify the defining spirit and savoir-faire of The Band, there is no question that the box set’s chronological overview offers a clear perspective of the group’s hare-footed ascent as a musical unit. The rocky road starts off in the rustic confines of Canada in 1961 as Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel (aka the Hawks) back singer Ronnie Hawkins on a succession of rough and tumble covers like Jimmy Reed’s “You Know I Love You” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” With the addition of musical prodigy Garth Hudson, the newly christened Levon and the Hawks went on to record several hit n' miss obscurities in the early 60s, many making their first wide release appearance on this box set. A month after cutting “Go Go Liza Jane” in New York, the Hawks became the ultimate supporting band for the period’s pied piper and reigning iconic figure – Bob Dylan.

The Band’s work with Dylan has already been extensively repackaged and re-released over the course of numerous retrospectives; however, Robertson managed to find a few encrusted trinkets that have yet to see the light of day, notably “Tell Me Mama” and “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” taken from a 1966 live performance in Liverpool, England. Along the way, various song sketches fill in the blanks as the Hawks evolve into The Band. The meat of the box set mixes the best and the brightest from nine of The Bands’ albums with a slew of rarities, one-offs, and live material, including a stellar 1974 performance from Madison Square Garden of “Highway 61 Revisited.” The ensuing rave-up is definitely a highlight of the 100 or so songs that make up A Musical History.

Although their output started to dissipate and sputter by the time they finished up with The Last Waltz, The Band’s collective chemistry, as evidenced throughout the package, never seemed to lose its graceful, intoxicating edge. Today, with Danko and Manuel gone, and deep-rooted resentment between Helm and Robertson, they remain a distant memory for many, a bearded, archaic relic for the uninitiated. But regardless of affiliation, A Musical History captures a remarkable legacy any music aficionado – young or old, faithful or uninterested – should actively seek out and covet.

~ Shawn Perry

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