Given the countless Band compilations released over the years, plus the exhaustive bonus-track-laden reissues of the proper albums in 2000 and 2001, it's easy to be suspicious of the six-disc A Musical History, especially since it's the third Band box set released in the CD era. It would seem that all the worthwhile previously unreleased music has been excavated and that the Band's career has been anthologized in every possible way, but A Musical History proves that's not true. As its title implies, the set is a biography, tracing the group's career from their early days as the Hawks supporting Ronnie Hawkins, through their stint as Levon & the Hawks, through their time as Bob Dylan's backing band in 1966, through their emergence as the Band in 1968, then through their years of stardom in the early '70s, leading up to their departure at The Last Waltz in 1976. No previous compilation has done this -- they've either picked up the story with Music from Big Pink or offered up the greatest hits, and they've never weaved Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan tracks into the story line -- and this thorough, all-encompassing approach does result in an absorbing narrative that does provide some revelations, most arriving on the spectacular, necessary first disc that traces the evolution of the band before they were the Band. Here, for the first time on a Band album, you get to hear the group's beginning as a rough rock & roll and blues combo, and while some of this material is a bit generic (albeit in the best possible sense, since they were a lean, tough, straight-ahead rock & roll group), this music echoes throughout the four CDs that follow, whether it's in the muscular R&B grooves of Levon Helm and Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson's tight, squealing guitar, or Richard Manual's piano chord clusters, or how the group touched on rockabilly, Motown, New Orleans R&B, country, and folk even on their earliest recordings. In this context, their teaming with Dylan not only seems like a natural outgrowth of their work as the struggling Levon & the Hawks, but it's clear that Dylan helped give the band focus and ideas, inspiring not just the songs that the group wrote for Music from Big Pink, but the whole Americana aesthetic that came to define the Band and made them separate from their rock & roll peers of the late '60s.
Once A Musical History hits the second disc, the Band's story enters familiar territory and the revelations start drying up even if the unreleased material doesn't (there are a whopping 32 unreleased tracks on this 102-song set, and there's about ten or so other cuts that could qualify as rarities, as well). All the same, the conventional story line carries more weight here, since the first disc not only provides context, but because the sequencing and song selection are excellent, helping to drive the Band's story in addition to just being flat-out entertaining. Plus, there are some great rarities scattered throughout here, including an exciting, careening live version of Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home" with Bob Dylan that was only released on a Woody tribute album, the funky, gritty "Baby Lou," a raucous "Slippin' & Slidin'" from the Festival Express tour in 1970, hard-rocking live versions of "Strawberry Wine" and "Look out Cleveland" from Royal Albert Hall in 1971, a live "Highway 61 Revisited" with Bob Dylan from a 1974 Madison Square Garden show, and Rick Danko's sweet, lazy unreleased "Home Cookin'" from 1976. These not only help keep a familiar story interesting to the hardcore fans (who, after all, are the primary audience for such a lavish set as this), but help fill little details within that story, along with illustrating how good the Band could sound as a band right up until the very end of their career.
Despite all this, the arc of their career -- the sudden, glorious beginning and the slow descent into equal parts pretension and lethargy -- can't help but shine through in a biography such as this. No amount of well-chosen rarities and expert song sequencing (all the group's major songs, along with all of their noteworthy minor tunes, are here in some incarnation or another) can hide the downward turn in the Band's fortunes. There was a pretty steep decline in quality material after their third album, Stage Fright, in 1970, and while the next four studio albums, plus the live Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz, are summarized on the final two discs of the set, it's hard to ignore how covers keep popping up or how numerous songs are repeated in different versions (no matter how good the alternate versions are, it's clear that the group was running out of strong new songs), nor is it easy to ignore that the rest of the Band, for whatever reason, simply stopped writing, transferring the burden to Robbie Robertson, who struggled to come up with songs that seemed as effortless and graceful as his early songs, despite a slight rejuvenation on Northern Lights-Southern Cross. That doesn't mean these last two discs are bad -- far from it, they put the best spin on an uneven era -- but they do make it clear that the Band were caught at an awkward spot and were unable to successfully move forward, no matter how much Robertson prodded. As the accompanying DVD, which has nine live performances beginning with a 1970 clip from Woodstock and ending with three spots from Saturday Night Live in 1976, illustrates, Robertson had his mind elsewhere, but the rest of the guys were happy to simply be in a band. Being the one with ambitions, Robertson made the move and brought the curtains down on their career when the rest of the Band weren't necessarily ready to call it quits, as evidenced by their ongoing reunions in the '80s and '90s.
Despite the existence of a touring Band minus their guitarist and songwriter, Robertson wound up as the member who was generally acknowledged as the one who kept the spirit of the group alive, at least according to the mainstream rock press. He also shepherded nearly all of the official Band reissues, including this one, where he acts as executive producer and the main interview for Rob Bowman's detail-heavy, perhaps too affectionate liner notes. Bowman's long piece ends abruptly when Robertson leaves the group; it's acknowledged that the Band soldiered on, but this fact is dismissed quickly, since it doesn't fit the romanticized notion of the Band's career that Robertson has been selling since Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. The bad blood between Robertson and Levon Helm runs too deep for them to make friends over this project (Garth Hudson is credited as an archival producer), but that acrimony is only noticeable within the liner notes to this beautiful hardcover book-styled box set. The five discs captures the Band at their peak as a band, containing their very best music. Music from Big Pink and The Band remain the essential, definitive albums, the records that not only capture their essence but have a nearly mythical grandeur. This box is for those who already know and love the group, who know their ups and downs, and who want to hear them in all their glory -- and, as this proves, the Band were glorious indeed.