Looking back all these years later, it’s shocking that the Band made their self-titled second LP in a Hollywood hills pool house and not a steamy log cabin in the woods. Four out of five of the Band’s members were Canadian, recording songs about struggle and strife in rural early America while eating food from a kitchen that was previously owned by Sammy Davis Jr.
Down to its sepia-toned cover emblazoned with lyrics from the 1917 standard “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” the 50th anniversary reissue of this Americana masterpiece stays true to its roots. Robbie Robertson had reservations about the studio remix, insisting to engineer Bob Clearmountain the importance of preserving the album’s “homemade” quality. As a result, the scruffy tracks sound cleaner and sharper, like they’ve been dusted and polished. The fireside lullaby “When You Awake” sounds as sweet as ever, while the late Richard Manuel’s visceral howling on “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” feels as if he’s in the room with you.
Though “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” evokes the Civil War, it’s just as relevant to hear in the Trump era. “Nothing that I have read, from Bruce Catton to Douglas Southall Freeman, from Fletcher Pratt to Lloyd Lewis, has brought home to me the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does,” Ralph J. Gleason wrote in our original review. It’s a time we remember oh so well.
Six of the 13 outtakes are previously unreleased, the highlights being the ragtime piano introduction on the alternative version of “Rag Mama Rag,” the rollicking instrumental mix of “Look Out Cleveland” and the sparkling, intimate a cappella/stripped down version of “Rockin’ Chair.” Despite its release nearly 20 years ago on the LP’s 2000 remix, the alternate take of “Whispering Pines” is still the most stunning outtake. The subtle beauty of Manuel’s vocal is hilariously interrupted within the first 40 seconds, as we hear “Who’s squeaking around in the beginning so much? Is it your chair, Richard?” before he starts up again.
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As writer Anthony DeCurtis points out in the liner notes, the Band was one of the reasons Woodstock chose to locate the 1969 festival in Upstate New York. The Band’s set that Sunday evening was recently released on the massive Woodstock box set in August, but it fits cozily into this reissue as a time capsule, where they can be heard playing rustic, pioneer age music to a sea of muddy hippies challenging the Nixon administration.
The reissue may not be a treasure trove of unheard material, but the gems that echo the sounds of the American South are comforting and familiar. And that’s not a bad thing.