THE BAND, "A Musical History"

In the era of Iron Butterfly and Ultimate Spinach, the musicians who became known as the Band chose their name with a purpose. It was meant to be down to earth, modest, representing the act's collecti

In the era of Iron Butterfly and Ultimate Spinach, the musicians who became known as the Band chose their name with a purpose. It was meant to be down to earth, modest, representing the act's collective approach to rock's homey roots. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson signaled a righteous retreat from the bombast that bled the ears and shredded sensibilities at the end of the '60s.

So what's with the 6-disc boxed set packaged as a hardcover book and retailing for $90? The grandiosity of the 5 CD/1 DVD project doesn't jive with one's feelings of what the Band meant, and should still mean.

But there is obviously plenty of worthwhile music here, especially from the Band's formative years as the Hawks. Disc one offers four tracks featuring Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, recorded in 1961 and 1963. At a time when Joey Dee & the Starliters were among the best self-contained performing white rock bands in the U.S., these tracks stand apart for their rambunctious rootsiness.

Yet they are trumped by eight tunes credited to Levon & the Hawks, featuring the peerless drummer as leader and vocalist. "Honky Tonk" (writing credited to Duke/Peacock Records founder Don Robey) is much more exciting than its generic title; that and the Bo Diddley-ish "Leave Me Alone" are among the set's revelations. And we'll take Helm over Hawkins as a singer six days out of seven.

Recorded in 1964 and 1965, they betray not a shred of awareness of Beatlemania and the English Invasion. That capacity to isolate themselves from trends served the Band especially well when woodshedding with Bob Dylan on "The Basement Tapes" and on the their own epochal debut album, "Music from Big Pink."

We've got to take issue, however, with the framing of "Big Pink," sandwiched as it is between clusters of "Basement Tapes" tracks. The impulse to connect these tracks, fine as most of them are, is understandable, since they most were recorded around the same time, and considered for "Big Pink."

But "Big Pink" made its impact in 1968 because of its element of surprise, opening with the aching lament "Tears of Rage." As Rob Bowman writes in the book part of this ... book, "Tears" was "very deliberately positioned as the lead track on side one."

Much of the grace and momentum of "Big Pink" came from that brilliant opening feint. So although Robertson was wise enough to keep "Big Pink" in its entirety (with an alternate version of "To Kingdom Come") and in sequence, beginning it as the fourth track on disc two misplaces its historic resonance.

Robertson seems in tune with the critical consensus that the second album, "The Band" (which sensibly begins disc three) was a peak, and that each subsequent album contained more marginal material.

But "The Band" -- the 1969 masterwork whose effect seemed like an effort to heal the wounds inflicted on America by the Civil War of both the 1860s and the 1960s -- was even more thematically unified than "Big Pink." Yet the songs from side two of the original album are strewn throughout discs 3 and 4; the exile of "Unfaithful Servant," and its replacement with a live version from the overrated live album, "Rock of Ages" deprives the song -- and those that surrounded it -- of meaning and context.

Of the eight songs from "Rock of Ages," recorded at New York's Academy of Music at the end of December 1971, only the version of Chuck Willis' "(I Don't Want to Hang Up My) Rock'N'Roll Shoes" really stands up. By the time we get to disc 5, the boxed set becomes a motley grab-bag: "Forever Young," on which they backed Dylan, a handful of "Last Waltz" and other live tracks, a song sketch, a weak choice ("Share Your Love With Me") from the covers album "Moondog Matinee."

And the DVD disc, with nine songs "from stage and television" is paltry, visually and musically. "Don't Do It," filmed at one of the "Rock of Ages" shows, makes its third appearance in the box; Rick Danko's sad intensity on "Stage Fright" is the only one of three 1976 "Saturday Night Live" performances with any substance; and on the two long songs from Wembley Stadium in 1974, it's difficult to determine whether the audience or The Band is more bored.

From Bowman's erudite but often hyperbolic commentary to the grim Ed Ruscha painting on the cover, "The Band: A Musical History" can be described in a word that never applied to the group in its working history: pretentious. -- Wayne Robins
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