Just for the record: The Band’s astounding post-Dylan classic


Just for the record: The Band’s astounding post-Dylan classic

A bi-weekly vinyl review

Andrew Donaldson

The trend for 50th anniversary re-releases continues to reveal that 1968 was a remarkable year for music. Latest to get the full bells and whistles treatment is the Band’s astonishing debut, Music From Big Pink, a record that looked to an uncertain future by dwelling on the past with songs that favoured the wisdom and values of a shared tradition over the upheavals of youthful revolt. It was, as one critic put it, music that “seemed to spring from nowhere and everywhere”. The songs themselves sounded as ageless as they were evocative: The Weight, This Wheel’s On Fire, Tears of Rage, To Kingdom Come — all as enigmatic as the bizarre cover art by Bob Dylan, who had been supported by the group on the singer’s gruelling 1966 world tour.
The group had been around a while before meeting Dylan. From around 1960 they’d been together as The Hawks, the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins, an American-Canadian rockabilly shouter. Splitting with Hawkins, they were then led by drummer Levon Helm, who took over singing duties.When a motorcycle accident in Woodstock, in upstate New York, in mid-1966 put an end to any further touring with Dylan, the group holed up in a salmon-coloured house on the town’s outskirts to work with the singer on what became known as Dylan’s fabled Basement Tapes. And it was here that the Band’s debut album was also conceived. 
Introducing the new edition of Music From Big Pink, guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson put it thus: “We had all of that gathering — the woodshedding and paying our dues, all of that dripping into the music. This didn’t sound like anything we had done with Ronnie Hawkins, or what we had done as Levon and the Hawks, or what we played on the Dylan tour. This was a music that — hopefully — lived in a time and space that you couldn’t quite put your finger on.”
And how. Drawing from the vast American roots music panoply — country, blues, R&B, gospel, soul, rockabilly, brass bands, folk, rock ’n’ roll and much more besides — it was a timeless new style that changed the course of popular music. It kick-started the “country rock” movement — a term the group hated — and was an immediate critical success. Reviewers in Time, Rolling Stone and Life magazines acclaimed it as a work which articulated contemporary reservations about US “progress”. Musicians like George Harrison and Eric Clapton showered it with praise and reconsidered their career paths as a result. It is one of the very few records from its era whose power remains undiminished, immune to the passage of time.Which is why it is perhaps baffling that, for its reissue, it has been given a new stereo mix by producer Bob Clearmountain from the original four-track analogue masters. According to the pre-release bumf, the new mix achieves “a striking clarity” and incorporates “some previously unreleased chatter from the studio sessions”. It does seem a bit unnecessary.  
Nevertheless, at the end of next month Capitol/UMC release Music from Big Pink in newly remixed and expanded packages, including a super deluxe box set which features the newly remastered album, now a double 180g vinyl set that includes various outtakes and alternate versions, including an a cappella version of I Shall Be Released. Also included is a replica of the first single off the album, The Weight/I Shall Be Released, a hardbound book, CD and Blu-Ray disc. All that will will set you back about R1,100 — which is more or less what collectors can expect to pay for a new mint copy of any of the 1968 issues. The anniversary edition will also be available as a double album on 180g black vinyl, a limited edition double album on 180g pink vinyl, CD and download.BURIED TREASURE
It’s not hard to understand why Millie Jackson’s third album for Jive Records, the 1989 live recording, Back To The S**t!, regularly winds up on lists of the all-time worst cover designs. But it’s a pity, because the album is terrific. It spawned two Top 10 hits, and signalled a return of form for the hugely underrated Jackson, who made some of the hardest-hitting and most sexually frank soul music of the 1970s and 1980s.In a recent interview with Mojo magazine, Jackson revealed that executives at Jive felt that her previous albums for the label, 1986’s An Imitation of Love and 1988’s The Tide is Turning, were too tame; they wanted something a little wilder and went so far as to even insist on the title of her new record — despite being too embarrassed to say the “s” word out loud in a meeting. “They wanted to let the public know I’m going back to the old Millie,” she said. “When it was time for me to go in the studio to shoot the cover, I went in the toilet and said: ‘I’m ready.’ They loved it, but they couldn’t believe it. They had no choice! You named it Back To The S**t!, so I’m going to put whatever cover I want on it, something that relates to the shit.”The “old Millie” alludes both to the reputation she crafted via sexually frank lyrics and confrontationally hilarious onstage banter — among other tracks, Back To The S**t! features a stand-up comedy riff called Muffle That Fart — as well as the fact that she was an outstanding singer and a trailblazing champion for women’s voices.Jackson may now finally be getting the recognition she deserves with Exposed, a new compilation of her hits remixed by producer/engineer Steve Levine. It’s released on vinyl by UK-based Ace Records, which is also re-releasing all the albums she recorded for Spring Records. Of these, only her  breakthrough, 1974’s Caught Up, is so far available on vinyl.It’s worth hunting around for her 1972 debut, Millie Jackson, which is the freshest sounding album of her career, a remarkable assured and infectious blend of 1960s soul influences, from Stax to Motown with some Philly for good measure. She was just as tough and aggressively outspoken here as she would be on later releases; the album’s hypocrisy fable, A Child of God (It’s Hard to Believe), was on its way to becoming a monster R&B hit when Spring Records bosses realised it wasn’t a gospel song after all and withdrew it as a single. But she scored with another track, the swinging Ask Me What You Want, which went on to crack the R&B charts, signalling the arrival of a major new talent.Another album to look out for is 1977’s Feelin’ Bitchy, a first-rate soul set that comes with an extra helping of X-rated raunch. The 10-minute bluesy opener, All the Way Lover, explains why women perhaps would prefer watching soap operas than paying attention to their husbands. As she sings: “Frustration ain’t no fun.” And for those uncertain as to how far all the way is, she adds: “No kissing on the belly button and stopping, now.”
Or so the Rolling Stones may have said, but for hardcore fans it sometimes helps to have deep pockets as well. The group’s entire catalogue on their own Rolling Stones label has just been reissued in a swaggering deluxe box set, The Studio Albums Vinyl Collection 1971-2016. Fifteen albums on 20 180g vinyl discs all remastered and cut at half-speed at Abbey Road Studios, in faithful and intricate original packaging replications.There’s a hefty asking price. The band’s official site wants $450 for the set, which is slightly more than R6,000. Amazon can get it for you at maybe 20% cheaper, but it’s still a fair whack for what amounts to a curate’s egg. On the one hand, it does include the career highlights Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street and 2016’s Blue & Lonesome; on the other, there’s dross like Emotional Rescue, Dirty Work and Steel Wheels. Not to mention a fair bit of treading water elsewhere.
A far more attractive package is The Rolling Stones in Mono (Abkco/UMC), a 2016 box set that handsomely reproduces their entire UK and US 1960s studio output with remastered single channel punch. Also worth checking out is the The Rolling Stones On Air album, a collection of rarely heard BBC radio recordings from 1963 to 1965, the group’s formative years.Released by Polydor Records on heavyweight vinyl in single and deluxe double album formats, the songs here include eight the band have never recorded or released commercially, making it a must for serious fans.
Thanks to her brilliant debut, You Were Never Much of a Dancer (Universal), newcomer Gwenifer Raymond, a Welsh guitarist now resident in Brighton, has rekindled an interest in American Primitive, a genre of bluesy, instrumental fingerpicking acoustic music popularised by the late solo guitarist John Fahey. “No ordinary human,” the Observer noted of Raymond’s playing, “she also has mercury in her fingertips.”Raymond discovered the guitar aged eight after being handed a copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind album by her mother. From there she backtracked to the blues of the Delta and the folk forms of Appalachia before settling on Fahey’s rolling droning and rhythmic traditional sound.One of the tracks here is called Bleeding Fingers Blues and you can imagine why that is. Speaking of which, check out a video of Sometimes There’s Blood, another track off the album.For further explorations in American Primitive, check out the recently released and lavishly compiled double vinyl sampler, The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: American Primitive Guitar & Banjo 1963-1974 (Universal). Or why not go back to where it all started: the aforementioned John Fahey. Start with his 1965 breakthrough, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, which has been released by the appropriately named 4 Men With Beards Records.

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