As 1967 faded into '68, Rock music was no longer restricted to A-sides and B-sides. Instead, musicians embraced the idea of LP expressionism. Some 6 months before, The Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band", Brian Wilson had "Pet Sounds", Cream had "Disraeli Gears" and Jimi Hendrix asked "Are you Experienced". It was like psychedelic sunday everyday with rainbows all over your stars...
And yet, from nowhere and everywhere a new sensibility based on all stylings was beginning to simmer like gumbo on a hot plate. It was counter-revolutionary to the revolution. It was the time of The Band...and the music world would be taken aback by their "Music from Big Pink".. Before I get ahead of things, you'll need to know that The Band grew out of an association with Ronnie Hawkins. They quickly caught the attention of Bob Dylan and wound up touring with him in England. They were soundly booed every night. Aye, when it came to Dylan's electric to acoustic conversion, you could say that the English weren't exactly "ready teddys".
Ahem...Now then, after that tour the whole works of them retired to a small rented house in West Saugerties New York. They affectionately called it "Big Pink". They collaborated day and night creating, fusing, amalgamating and blending. Their collective hope was to assemble a new alchemy of sound. Alas; Dylan had his motorcycle accident and retreated from all things music. The Band however was left with little less than their collective chemistry. Shortly after, a disillusioned Eric Clapton turned up on Big Pink's doorstep. Eric had just attained super status with the rather dysfunctional Cream and was seeking some sort of grounding. On a spiritual level, he immediately tapped into their tribal sensitivity; but nonetheless, felt like a stranger in a stranger land. For here were the five of them locked in an embrace as they passed instruments back and forth, freely associated melody and exchanged encouragement. Clapton jammed with them that day but quickly realized that this was no place for his "Cream"-ey guitar heroics.
The Band would persist and persevere eventually releasing their debut masterpiece, "Music from Big Pink", in July of 1968. It was evident from the start, that Bob Dylan had left his fingerprint on it. He was credited with co-writing 2 tracks, the tracklist included a Dylan cover and the album's artwork was painted by Dylan himself. Although it was cooly received..Dylan fans took to it right away. Soon after, radio added "The Weight" and album sales blossomed. The Band's "Music from Big Pink" would eventually scratch at Billboard's Top 30. They would follow it up with several efforts including the noteworthy "Stagefright" and a couple of additional projects with Dylan. Their classic line-up would call it quits in 1976 in a very public austere sort of way. Their "Last Waltz" captured on film would influence a generation of musicians and film makers alike. Wow...I can really go on and on...
Last year, Robbie Robertson revisited this gem and personally remastered it for surround sound. This "Music From Big Pink" DVD-A is another one of these sneaky high resolution 5.1 audiophile extravaganzas. Instruments and voices work in a call and response fashion subtlely appearing and dissipating throughout all areas of the soundscape. Right from the start, this album startles with an unspoken warmth and sensitivity. Through it all, accordions mysteriously appear, guitars and keyboards perform hand-to-channel combat and a horn section blares bright right through your frontal lobe.
In particular, The Manuel and Dylan penned "Tears of Rage" has a fragile beauty haunted by Manuel's wavering vocals. This ponderous ballad seems like an odd choice to kick off an album yet it speaks of rage and dismissal. It's backed by point-counterpoint instrumentation and reaches a level of wavering beauty. On 2nd and 3rd listens, this opening track foretells an impending collision of bluegrass, country, rock, gospel, blues, jazz and even broadway. Robertson's only lead vocal would come on the eccentric "To Kingdom Come". It's oddly stirring and seems to come not so much from him as through him. Its structure showcases him and Garth reflecting melody back and forth through their respective instruments.
By the 3rd track, it becomes quite apparent that there will be no pitch-perfect Tom Jones crooning on this album. Instead we get a rustic "straight out of Arkansas" drawl from Helm, a downhome charm from Danko...and that hair-raising, insistent, goosebump chill from Manuel. Such sweet pain.. With it's opening chords, "The Weight" immediately brings to mind that famous opening sequence from "Easy Rider". You know the one, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda hurtle their bikes through deserts of Arizona in search of America.
The 5.1 transfer is spectacular. Levon Helm's heavy stick pounds out more pavement than any peace signed twin could ever manage. Take that you dope smuggling hippies... Throughout "Music from Big Pink" it is readily apparent that Garth Hudson left his fingerprint on it as well. It's a masterpiece of layered organs, opposing pianos, seasoned accordion and orchestrations of horns, saxophones and clarinets. And thanks to Robertson's production...Hudson's contributions all come through with jaw-dropping precision ie. clean, clear and remarkably uncluttered. Its interesting to note that Hudson was reluctant to join up with Ronnie Hawkins and his band. He felt that his talents and classical training would go to waste in the confines of a backbeat restricted "2 and 4" rockabilly band. So to reconcile the negative; Garth charged each member of the band $10.00 a week to tutor them. In this way he could effect instrumentation and affect the final product.
Affect it he did...just listen to Hudson's signature song "Chest Fever". Phil Collins, on an obscure "Desert Island disc" radio special, placed The Band's "Chest Fever" at the top of his list. He went on to describe an awe-inspiring image of a church organ sitting astride a mountain top while a possessed Garth Hudson coaxes pure magic out its pipes. Collins would love this track in surround sound. In 5.1, Hudson's hammond seems to do battle with itself. It begins with opposing tracks straining out of the front and rear channels colliding in the center of the room. Soon after, collision dissolves into collusion with a slow build to glass-shattering intensity! Other instruments then enter the room to foster further chaos and texture. It ain't no "You can't hurry love"...
The end of the album arrives with an incredible rendition of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released". On this version, Manuel handles the high falsetto, Danko covers the tenor and Helm takes over the bottom. The result is pure orchestrated majesty... Alas.."Music from Big Pink" would indeed influence a generation copycats. Witness the catalogues of the Grateful Dead, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Dave Matthews, The String Cheese Incident and Wilco....all can be traced back to this debut masterpiece from The Band.
Ron Wheeler Editor