THE BAND Music From Big Pink (Capitol)

EMI have sensibly issued a third series of high-quality vinyl pressings of choice items from their vast back catalogue. Now dubbed "The Millennium Vinyl Collection", these feature, according to the blurb:

Classic LP's
Original packaging
Virgin audiophile (180gm) vinyl pressing
Heavy quality sleeves
Analogue cutting from analogue tapes

All of which is sweet and dandy, although you might wonder why EMI don't apply such high standards to their more conventional issues (I won't go off on one again about the appalling state of their current Beatles pressings, but...). The ten titles just released include such certified classics as R.E.M.’s "Document", Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" and this, the legendary first album from The Band.

Legendary in the sense that "Music From Big Pink" was one of the key products of Bob Dylan's post-motorcycle-accident recuperation, born in a little pink house on an isolated mountaintop in West Saugerties, New York, both this and "The Basement Tapes" being the other extreme of the pendulum swing of a phase in Dylan's career that you could argue encompassed everything from the recording "Like A Rolling Stone" to the moment at the Manchester Free Trade Hall when a spotty young student exposed the folk messiah as a traitor, or not. And legendary in the sense that it was the first long-player from a band (pun unintended) whose reputation is currently, and deservedly, in the ascendant once again following their championing by New York State neighbours Mercury Rev, who lured Levon Helm and Garth Hudson in to work on their astounding "Deserter's Songs" album.

"Big Pink" is the home to classic Dylan songs such as "Tears Of Rage" (an object lesson in just how slow you can take a melody before it threatens to collapse entirely, as is Black Sabbath's "Black Sabbath", come to think of it), "Wheels On Fire" and "I Shall Be Released", along with timeless Robbie Robertson originals like "Chest Fever" (notable for Garth Hudson's astounding rock monster "Genetic Method" keyboard intro) and the hit single "The Weight". Whilst "Big Pink" doesn't quite have the dovetailing consistency of The Band's even-better eponymous second album, it has a (literally) homespun charm quite unlike anything else in rock's canon.

A few brief words about the sonics, which are, after all, the main reason for purchase. Having owned the CD version of "Big Pink" for the last decade, I can report that the familiar distortions and muffled sound remain - even vinyl can't work wonders on less-than-audiophile source material - but the music seems to breathe a little easier than before, which is an important consideration with an album as organic as this.

THE BAND The Last Waltz (Warner Bros./Rhino)

Commercial break first: so says the sticker, this is "A Mammoth 4-CD Chronicle Of The Band's Legendary Final Concert. Over 4 Hours Of Music Featuring THE BAND With BOB DYLAN, ERIC CLAPTON, MUDDY WATERS (with "PINE TOP" PERKINS), NEIL YOUNG, JONI MITCHELL, RINGO STARR, VAN MORRISON, NEIL DIAMOND, PAUL BUTTERFIELD, RONNIE HAWKINS, BOBBY CHARLES, DR. JOHN, EMMYLOU HARRIS, THE STAPLES, and MORE! Includes the Complete Original 1978 Album Plus 24 Previously Unreleased Tracks (23 Exclusively Available Here!). Contains an 80-Page Book With A Foreword by Robbie Robertson, New Liner Notes by Famed Rock Journalist David Fricke, and Rare Photos. Digitally Remixed and Remastered by Robbie Robertson". Easy there! The capital letters, the exclamation marks, this all looks suspiciously like hype…on a Band album? Surely not! Not on an album by a group so terminally, deliberately unhip that they stumbled around Woodstock dressed like backwoodsmen a century out of time whilst the rest of their generation got wrapped in purple haze and orange skies. But that is, substantially what "The Last Waltz" is, magisterial, majestic hype done The Band's way.

Everything connected to "The Last Waltz" symbolises luxuriously upholstered excess. The evening itself, held on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 at Winterland, began with a turkey dinner for 5,000, followed by a waltz orchestra with professional dancers on hand to personally assist any guest lumbered with too many left feet. Martin Scorsese was whisked away from work on his gangster jazz epic "New York, New York" to capture the event on film. To beautify proceedings for the camera eye a stage set was borrowed from the San Francisco Opera's production of "La Traviata", and hung with chandeliers that allegedly saw service in "Gone With The Wind". The city's leading poets, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure, were pressed into service to paper over any gaps in the programme. And, if that could possibly be less than enough, the glitter of guests shouted out above were enlisted to help The Band bring it on home. The original soundtrack release was a shelf-sagging triple album, the film regularly cited as one of the finest of all rock movies, even by curmudgeonly old Halliwell's. Now, 25 years later, comes this expanded set, immaculately packaged by Rhino as a hardback book, along with imminent DVD and DVD-Audio releases. Even the timing of the original couldn't have been more apposite - a few weeks later the Sex Pistols released "Anarchy In The U.K.", clanging a distant death knell for almost everything "The Last Waltz" dared to represent.

But what of the music? There certainly seems to be a hell of a lot of it: as well as the events of the night in presumably the least expurgated form they're going to be released in for the foreseeable future, there's also "The Last Waltz Suite", a side of studio material that featured on the original issue, as well as rehearsal takes and studio sketches that didn't. The Band play their fantastic songs with verve and wit throughout, of course, but these renditions seem almost as if they're bloated on the good life that the evening celebrates, distanced from the reassuring woody thump of the studio versions nestled on "Music From Big Pink" and "The Band". Even so, there's an elaborate, fluid musicality coursing through these performances. "Acadian Driftwood" glistens like morning dew, the perfect combination of musicianship, melody and history. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is some kind of pinnacle, from Allen Toussaint's gorgeous new brass charts to the rippling repeated end choruses, one of few moments in the film where Scorsese turned his cameras on the rapt reaction of the crowd. And check the swelling introduction to Garth Hudson's keyboard solo "The Genetic Method", a chill-out classic in waiting if ever there was one.

Of the guest performances, just about everybody seems to respond to the spirit of the occasion, whether it be Muddy Waters hollering history on "Mannish Boy" or Van The Man's ridiculous high-kicking antics during "Caravan". Neil Young turns in a "Helpless" freed from the starched rhythmic convention of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young original, accompanied by Joni Mitchell singing from behind a curtain. Her own set includes the glorious flowing narrative of "Coyote" and a more conventional take on "Shadows And Light", the beatnik Moog poetry of the album version replaced by The Band's undulating soft and gentle rocking. Neil Diamond's performance seems hamstrung by his choice of song - "Dry Your Eyes" - which is hardly the most volcanic tune in his repertoire, and Dylan crashes through his portion of the evening with all the wild abandon of "Before The Flood", marvellous if you adore that album, rather more mystifying otherwise.

Some of the additional material doesn’t really enhance the listening experience. "Jam #1" and "Jam #2" are overloaded with celebrity and underwhelming, whilst the rehearsals mainly consist of lower octane alternatives to the real deal, although the fabulous "King Harvest (Must Surely Come)" makes its only appearance in that section. Equally the studio sketches are possibly more than the listener really needs to know about the compositional process. Maybe this edition of "The Last Waltz" would make for a more enthralling document had the best bits been parcelled up as a 3 disc set (neither of the latter 2 CDs push past the hour mark, so there's a fair stretch of wasted space that could be usefully trimmed). But that could be seen as counter to the venture's whole spirit of more and bigger. Until maybe something better comes along for the 50th anniversary of the night, for all its foibles and flaws this new reissue is still the best way to remember the music of "The Last Waltz", if not to celebrate the achievements of The Band.

Richard Manuel