This is one of the best conceived box sets to come around since the format made its bow with the Eric Clapton and Allman Brothers packages from Polygram at the end of the 1980s. The problem with most boxes is that the producers can never be sure of the direction in which they should go, especially with acts that have a long history and a lot of hits -- do they represent all of the single A- and B-sides, or plunge into the vaults head first and fill it up with material that will be best known to hardcore fanatics? Luckily, in the case of Manfred Mann's Earth Band, there's a lot of history but not a huge raft of hits to deal with, just some extremely important ones, so a direction that didn't compromise either a box set's potential broad appeal (such as it was) or its hardcore fan appeal was available, for anyone so inclined and motivated. Covering a musical history that crosses 30 years, each CD has a distinctive thrust and content that separates it from the discs adjacent to it, yet it all manages to hold together as a vital resource for appreciation of the band.
Disc one is devoted to the transition between Manfred Mann Chapter Three, the short-lived Manfred Mann/Mike Hugg-led break with the original group Manfred Mann, mixing jazz and rock, and Manfred Mann's Earth Band, the much louder and harder-rocking ensemble that followed. "Happy Being Me" was the debut single of the Chapter Three band, while "Travelling Lady," which goes into King Crimson-esque saxophone territory, was off of the group's debut album; both tracks, like "Messin' Up the Land" which follows, were written by Mike Hugg. The latter track is the original Chapter Three rendition, completely different from the version that Manfred Mann's Earth Band ultimately released on their third album two years later -- it opens a brace of previously unissued tracks from the abandoned third Manfred Mann Chapter Three album, which was thought lost until Mann began working on remastering his library; it stands somewhere midway between the late-'60s soul-inspired pop of the original Manfred Mann group and those funky, jazzy jams that King Crimson started getting into circa 1972 with Mel Collins and company.
The rest is far more diverse, representing most of the unreleased Earth Band album Stepping Sideways, among them a killer version of Dylan's "Please Mrs. Henry" as a low-wattage blues piece, "Ashes to the Wind," in its original version, the stunning acoustic rocker "Holly Holy," and the Moog-driven "Ain't No Crime" -- any one of these cuts is almost worth the price of admission by itself, and together they make this first disc essential listening, not just for Chapter Three or Earth Band fans but also for anyone who ever took the '60s version of the group seriously, for as much of the break as any of this was with the "Chapter Two" band, it's all of a piece with what Mann and Hugg started out to do in 1963-1964. Just to fill a couple of gaps, the platter ends with the loud, rootsy "In the Beginning" from Solar Fire, the classically derived "Joybringer" in its 1973 version, and the folk-inspired single "Be Not Too Hard." Disc two is made up of a mixture of hits and outtakes, using the single version of "Blinded by the Light" and "Spirits in the Night" in its 1976 re-recording, as the jumping-off point for 13 songs mostly derived from or intended for the group's American-released albums, including a worthy busted single of "Quit Your Low Down Ways." There's not a less-than-perfect note struck anywhere here, and the mastering is impeccable, at an audiophile standard.
Disc three is intended as a showcase for the various singers who have graced the lineup, which means listeners get a lot of Chris Thompson -- it opens up with the group's live rendition of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," which is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever generated by any group associated with the name Manfred Mann; listeners also get Mann's "African Suite," with its collective vocals, and a rare Mann vocal on "War Dream." Steve Waller and Shona Laing are featured on the pounding, synth-driven single version of "I Who Have Nothing," and for thoroughness, contrast, and just plain welcomed self-indulgence, Laing is also featured on the single version of "Redemption Song" on the same platter, which also features Mann's synthesizer in profusion. Disc four carries listeners up to 2004, and showcases Mann's work of the 1990s and beyond, usually credited to him -- he hasn't changed an iota since the 1960s, to judge from the contents, still crossing pop, jazz, folk, world music, country, and anything else he cares to throw into the mix and hooking it all around stunning melodies and arrangements. The mastering is impeccable throughout -- state of the art for the first decade of the 21st century, with a bass on some of the latter material that can break an apartment lease if you're not careful -- and the annotation is as thorough as anyone can ask for, complete with footnotes and appendices.
This is a four-CD set that's a serious fan's dream come true -- and not just serious fans of the Earth Band, but also, as it happens, of the 1960s Manfred Mann group who want to see the rest of the story (the stuff's not that far removed from the pop/rock group's overall history) -- but also represents the hits and the nicely accessible singles, so that the casual fan ready to take the plunge can work from shallower to deeper water, as it were. In a word, it's perfect -- sadly, the fact that this box is devoted to a kind of cultish act like Manfred Mann's Earth Band means that many people will never get to hear it; maybe only one percent of the number of people who spring for, say, the 30th anniversary edition of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, or three percent of the number of people who buy hits compilations of the '60s incarnation of Manfred Mann, may ever consider buying this set; but the ones who do will get their money's worth and then some. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of multi-disc set that nobody should mind spending money on, precisely because it is excellent work and should be heard and should be bought.