Music From Big Pink was The Band's debut album in 1968, the year I was born. Much of the music emerged from their legendary work with Bob Dylan, (for whom they were sidemen in many of his early electric concerts), in a house in Woodstock, New York which they affectionately called 'Big Pink.' Much of this music would later emerge on vinyl as The Basement Tapes.
The new 5.1 mix released on DVD-A by Capitol adds 'room' to the mix. Right from the start with "Tears of Rage," a song which broke rock tradition by beginning a record with a 'slow' song, I felt like I was sitting among Richard, Rick, Robbie, Garth and Levon as an awed observer. "To Kingdom Come," the next track picks up the tempo and is presented here with an especially fat drum and bass sound for a late 60's recording. "In a Station" follows with a tremendous keyboard ambience in the opening seconds, although with the isolation of the electric piano in the left rear channel some distortion becomes apparent in places. "Caledonia Mission," also suffers from some distortion, but Robbie Robertson's Strat sound is improved from previous versions.
"The Weight", The Band's first anthem, begins with Robbie 's somewhat tentative acoustic guitar introduction amid a sea of hiss, which apparently the engineers could not satisfactorily clean up.
The song definitely borders on the religious with some of the best spiritual imagery I've ever heard in a pop song. But interestingly, the 'Nazareth' in the first line refers not to Jesus' hometown, but to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the home of Martin guitars. "We Can Talk" is possibly the best sounding track on the album with the ambient surround channels adding real punch to the song. "Long Black Veil," a traditional song, uses the surround channels more as space for other instruments and thus, I return to sitting amongst the group. And then with them in church, for "Chest Fever."; long my favorite song on the album. Garth Hudson's exciting organ intro here is brought out into the five channels, and makes me wish it were several minutes longer on tape, as it often was in concert.
Richard Manuel's "Lonesome Suzie" follows, quiet and spacious like "Tears of Rage," and replaces the invigoration of "Chest Fever" with the sad story of poor Suzie, and the author's heartfelt sympathy for her. To hear this song now truly haunts me in light of Manuel's suicide in 1986. "This Wheel's on Fire" is a Bob Dylan composition, which unfortunately, may be best known as the theme from "Absolutely Fabulous." Again, we have the surrounds used primarily for echo, with awesome bass sounds. The disc concludes with another Dylan song, the epic "I Shall Be Released." Fans of The Last Waltz will remember this as the all-star (including Dylan) finale. The sound is spacious and full; the album coming to a mellow but inspirational end.
Music From Big Pink is truly a masterpiece, and is treated very well here. This, I think, is one of few multichannel releases, either SACD or DVD-A, in which the rear channels are successfully used in different ways for different tracks. In some cases, they stretch the echoes, and in others, create a circle of music. But I do have one complaint about this album. In 2001, Capitol re-issued the CD with bonus tracks, many of which were from The Basement Tapes, including some of the album tracks in their developmental stages. None of these are here. And while purists might argue that only the eleven album tracks should be presented, I think omitting these bonus tracks when there clearly was space for them is just annoying. After all, who doesn't like bonus tracks?
Things would get even better for The Band with their self titled follow up. I genuinely hope Capitol will give the same royal sonic treatment, though hopefully with bonus tracks, to any upcoming DVD-A offerings. Sadly, The Band split after "The Last Waltz", never to reform as the same entity again. Besides Richard Manuel's suicide, which I believe came just as there was about to be some sort of reunion, Rick Danko followed Manuel into death last year. Robbie Robertson no longer speaks with either Levon Helm or Garth Hudson to complicate matters. It's sad how The Band ended, but Big Pink let's us celebrate the way they began.
--Daniel Wolfson, MusicTAP