THIS ALBUM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.
I say that not just as a cheesy reference to the opening frames of the legendary film of the concert, but as a sincere suggestion: there are so many people playing here at the same time that you need to literally feel the sound to get the full effect. Featuring the original five members of the Band, no less than fifteen guest performers, a horn section, and a savvy crowd of about 5,000, this is not background music.
That being said, I need to apologize for a few gross understatements I just made. Firstly, these are not the original five members of the Band. Of course, they’re the same people with the same names, but they’d come a very long way from the shy group of mostly teenagers that joined up with Ronnie Hawkins in the sixties. Musicianship-wise, there was no tighter band in the United States, and perhaps the world. The fact that they could write and perform masterpieces like the Civil-War-lament “The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down" or “The Weight," AND still have fun on tracks like “The Shape I’m In" and “Ophelia," AND still be the best backing band in the world for performers as diverse as Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan (all in the same night, no less), is a perfect testament to that.
Along those lines, a bigger understatement was calling the people who make appearances “guest performers." In reality, that’s a lot like calling pickup basketball with Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Kobe Bryant just another game. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Van Morrison are without a doubt five of the most important musicians of the 20th century; never mind the fact that Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood (of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, respectively) made eleventh-hour appearances at the end of the concert. But these monoliths of performers did not bring anything drastically new to the table; they simply brought emphasis to elements of the Band’s music that were already there. Young personified the band’s guitar-and-harmonica roots, while Clapton, Waters, Morrison, and Dylan did the same for rock, blues, soul, and folk-gone-to-hell, respectively. That isn’t to say that Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Stephen Stills, Dr. John, a Beatle, and a Rolling Stone were just messing around – it just serves as a cross-section of the talent and influence onstage that night.
The album shares a lot of musical highlights with the film: Dr. John’s straight-from-New-Orleans ending to “Such a Night," the five-man chorus at the end of Young’s “Helpless," and Clapton versus Robertson in “Further on Up the Road" to name a few. However, it surpasses the film in a number of areas. Most obviously, there are more songs. Previously unavailable band originals “Rag Mama Rag," “The Weight," and “This Wheel’s On Fire" are treats to listen to. Similarly, the box set provides extra numbers from nearly all of the guest performers, including a surprisingly soulful arrangement of the ancient Irish folk tune “Tura Lura Lural" with Irishman Van Morrison. And the extension of Bob Dylan’s set to the five-song opus bookended by barnburning renditions of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down" makes it almost a concert within itself. The sound quality is also pristine: when Clapton soars on one of his signature runs, you can hear the crowd roar its approval in the background. And much more than in the film, the individual voices of bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and drummer Levon Helm are more distinct without destroying their cohesive three-part harmony quality. Finally, the album provides equity: many of the shots in the film focused lovingly (and unjustly, if you ask the rest of the band) on Robbie Robertson. Here, every member is given an equal share of the aural stage.
One thing this album understandably falls short of is capturing the silent visual moments of the film. The humble gesture made by guitarist Robbie Robertson after Neil Young remarks that playing the concert is “one of the greatest pleasures of his life," Eric Clapton’s unassuming motion of thanks at the end of his set, and Bob Dylan’s nonchalant shrug during a heart-rending “Forever Young" are exclusive to Martin Scorcese’s rock-and-roll masterpiece. What the album loses there, however, is made up for by the sheer amount of music. Spanning the first three discs, the original concert in its entirety (minus the poets and a few minutes of banter) runs almost non-linearly, more a still painting of American music than a plodding record. Every song is played with the energy of a concert opener and the gravity of an encore. Conversely, the additional post-concert material on the fourth disc is hit-or-miss – many of the rehearsal takes and composition session recordings are reserved for die-hard fans of the band. One notable exception is the soulful rehearsal take of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," a Band staple that somehow didn’t make it to the Last Waltz.
After the dust clears in the wake of “I Shall Be Released," Robbie Robertson remarks, “We’re gonna have a party now." What ensues is fifteen minutes of what has to be the most star-studded jam session in rock history: Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Robbie Robertson on guitar, Ron Wood on slide, Paul Butterfield on blues harp, Levon Helm and Ringo Starr on drums, Dr. John and Garth Hudson (of the Band) alternating on piano and organ. Lost in the transition from film to audio is the meaning of the cheer in the middle of the second jam – it’s not because the music is particularly climactic at that point, but rather, because that is when last-minute guest Stephen Stills picks up his axe and steps onstage. These jams, forged from the energy in the air that night, are arguably the most exciting moments of the night, put together by some of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. When the Band sends the crowd on its way with “Don’t Do It," a rocker of a Marvin Gaye cover, you can relate to what the crowd probably felt: you want the concert, and the Band, to keep going. Luckily, there’s so much to this box set that you can just stick disc one back in the CD player and find something new. Provided, of course, that you play it loud enough.