2019 American Music Awards

Robbie Robertson Shares What You'll Hear on 'The Band' 50th Anniversary Edition

Don Dixon
Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson was very careful not to over-polish and take away the character of The Band's 1969 seminal self-titled album when he oversaw the 50th anniversary edition with engineer/mixer Bob Clearmountain. He wanted to "present it so you're inside of it more," the guitarist explained to Billboard.

The original album includes such classics as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Rag Mama Rag" and "Up On Cripple Creek," co-produced by John Simon and recorded at a residential home in the Hollywood Hills previously owned by Sammy Davis Jr. They soundproofed the pool house in order to work, while their families lived at the home.

The various commemorative packages, due out Nov. 15, feature remixes by Clearmountain and an assortment of goodies such as previously unreleased outtakes, alternate versions, a hardbound book, color vinyl, plus mixes in 5.1 surround sound.

Released Sept. 22, 1969, The Band was the second record from Robertson, keyboardist Garth Hudson, lead singer/keyboardist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm. All but Helm were Canadian. The unique sound was a mix of rock, folk, blues and country -- Americana, before the genre was termed.

Billboard spoke with Robertson about the anniversary package, what he did and did not want from the reissue, and which discoveries jogged his memory.

What were your first steps in assembling this anniversary package?

I went back to the original masters with Bob Clearmountain and we thought, 'Let's make this better for now for what we couldn't do back then.' Bob -- who is one of the best in the world at doing the stuff -- brings up the tapes and he starts to work and do his magic on it. Then I go to his studio, we're listening to this and we're like, "You can't do this. We can't do that. This is like taking a painting and saying, 'Let's enhance it.'" We couldn't do that.

What we could do, we discovered, is we can take the original tapes, put it just like it was, but with today's technology, we can present it with less hum and hiss and things that you got from tape and everything back then, in a more pristine way. You can hear more of the music, more of the air in it, and present it so you're inside of it more -- that we could do.

Then we had these bonus tracks and some of them I didn't even I remember hearing back then.

Like what?

There's a version of "Rag Mama Rag." I love it. Somebody went into the vaults and pulled this out, and when I heard it, I completely remembered it. It's a different version of the song, different feel, different instruments, a lot going on and I really like it. So some of those outtakes were thrilling for me. And then we got the original tape of The Band's performance at the Woodstock festival, which has never been released.

Where did you get that from?

We got it from the record company, the film company. And when I listened to this, it came back to me. When we went to play at Woodstock, we played on the last night. It just got dark. Couldn't have been a better time to go on. More people than there had been at the whole festival. This was the highlight of the festival. The crowd out there, they wanted to get crazy. They want to rock. They were muddy and down and dirty.

The band had hardly played any concerts as The Band and we were going out in front of a half-a-million people and going out to play music that we recorded on Music From Big Pink. We go out there and people are taking their shirts off, and arms in the air, and hooting and drinking and taking drugs, and we go out and start to play, and everything just went [makes whooshing sound] like this. And a stillness came out over the crowd. It was like we were singing hymns. All of this madness and wildness and everything just settled down into this kind of Zen experience [laughs]. And I thought, 'Oh my, this is so not what they're looking for. They want to do their rock n' roll thing.' And this music is not that. When I heard that I thought, 'It would be so great to include in this package.'

What other cool things will be included?

There's the lithographs of Elliott Landy's photographs. It is a beautiful layout, a beautiful package. I am just thrilled with it.

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