It's a monumental history indeed — five CDs, 102 tracks, a 108-page book, a nine-performance DVD — and clearly not intended for the casual fan. But then the Band, who revolutionized popular music while backing Bob Dylan in the mid-Sixties and then with the 1968 release of their debut album, Music From Big Pink, don't really have casual fans. The group's devotees will find much to enjoy on this set, and their pleasures won't be limited to the thirty-seven previously unreleased tracks and film clips.
Beginning in 1963, the first fourteen songs on Disc One document the group in its original incarnation as the Hawks, playing unvarnished bar-room blues (a searing "Who Do You Love," a previously unreleased cover of Bobby Bland's "Honky Tonk") on their own and while backing singer Ronnie Hawkins. A rambunctious version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" captures all the chaotic brilliance of Dylan and the Hawks' 1966 English tour. And to provide a career through-line, Music From Big Pink, The Band and The Basement Tapes are all generously represented, occasionally by alternate versions of familiar songs. Robbie Robertson, of course, was the group's lead guitarist and primary songwriter, but this set makes vividly clear how extraordinary an ensemble the Band were. As musicians and vocalists, drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko were somehow able both to evoke highly distinctive moods and characters ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") and to disappear into these songs' meticulous arrangements. Organist Garth Hudson is a constant wonder, a never-ending font of jaw-dropping musical ideas. "Genetic Method," his lengthy introduction to "Chest Fever" (included in two live versions here), is only his most obvious moment of mastery.
It was the Band's unique gift to sound at once loose and tight, instinctively responsive and eminently in control. By the time you arrive at the end of the fifth CD — a soulful version of "The Weight," performed with the Staple Singers for The Last Waltz in 1977 — you feel as though you've traveled every back road of American music. Blues, R&B, country, folk, gospel and ecstatic rock & roll: The Band made them all sound thrillingly new, and as if they had been there forever.