Not to be outdone, new box sets by The Band, Traffic and Soundgarden have a cumulative weight of 14 pounds, while box sets that compile the music of David Bowie, the Steve Miller Band and two posthumous Woody Guthrie tribute concerts (held in 1968 and 1970, respectively) together weigh about 13 pounds.
True, some of these box sets are only available on vinyl, rather than CD, reflecting the fact that 2019 saw vinyl record sales top that of CDs for the first time since 1986. Perhaps an even more significant factor is that record companies can command higher prices for all-vinyl box sets from audiophiles who value superior sonic quality.
But CD box sets can weigh and cost plenty, too. This is especially true when they include hard cover books — or, in the case of the new “Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts” — two hard-cover books, one with 160 pages, the other with a comparatively streamlined 88.
Formed in 1973 by former members of the English bands Free, King Crimson and Mott The Hoople, Bad Company struck gold with its swaggering blues-rock. Yet, of the band’s first six albums (all included here), only the first two, “Bad Company” and “Straight Shooter,” are essential. The total absence of any previously unreleased material is a pitfall for which these re-mastered recordings can’t compensate.
After bowing out as Bob Dylan’s concert touring group in the 1960s, The Band almost single-handedly created the template for what is now known as Americana music with its first two albums, 1968’s landmark “Music from Big Pink” and 1969’s equally mesmerizing “The Band.” This newly remixed and remastered set features the original “The Band” album, plus 13 outtakes, in somewhat more polished form. Six of these outtakes were previously unreleased, including an intriguingly slowed-down “Rag Mama Rag” and an a cappella version of “Rockin’ Chair” that vividly captures this group’s unadorned rustic charm. The big draw, though, is The Band’s complete 1969 performance at the legendary Woodstock festival, officially released here for the first time. It include two gems, “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and “Ain’t No More Cane,” that would later appear on Dylan and The Band’s classic “The Basement Tapes” double-album.
Capitol/UMe; 2 CDs, 2 vinyl albums and 1 7-inch single; 1 Blu-Ray disc; hardcover book and lithographs; $99.90
Should a beloved 1969 album that fans know, note-for-note, be remixed, let alone in 5.1 Surround Sound (which didn;t exist at the time)? This is a question that applies to The Band’s “The Band” (reviewed above) and to the 17 songs on The Beatles’ farewell recording, “Abbey Road,” which includes such favorites as “Something,” “Come Together” and “Carry That Weight.” Giles Martin, the son of original Beatles’ producer George Martin, deftly adds welcome new texture and detail to some of these songs. He restores Billy Preston’s epic organ solo on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” adds new definition to Ringo Starr’s drum and cymbal work, and brings exceptional clarity to the guitar solos by John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney on “The End.” This set also contains 23 demo versions and alternate takes in chronological order. These provide priceless, fly-on-the-wall opportunities to listen in on the studio banter and comments included here by the four Beatles, who alternately sound playful and annoyed, focused and impatient, while clearly dedicated to making their last album together one for the ages.
Casual David Bowie fans will likely have little interest in hearing virtually everything he recorded in 1968 and 1969, before his career took off. But devotees will welcome the dozen previously unreleased songs here, which — like this entire set — were curated by longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti. They include such genuine oddities as the very low-fi home demo “The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends The Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green),” which suggests Bowie had more than a passing familiarity with the Beach Boys’ version of “Sloop John B.” While many of the 75 tracks here, including all those from 1969’s “Space Oddity” album, could previously be heard on vinyl or in digital downloads, they were not available on CD.
It is difficult to think of another band inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that so willingly abandoned the charged innovation of its first few albums for a sleek, middle-of-the-road style for the rest of its career. Chicago’s “VI Decades Live” underscores this curious phenomenon by devoting its first two CDs to the group’s complete 90-minute performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. Other live-in-Europe cuts from a year earlier also bristle with infectious verve and energy. But the numbers here recorded after the 1978 death of guitarist Terry Kath — whose fans included Jimi Hendrix — are increasingly slick and faceless. Point Loma-bred singer bassist Jason Scheff, who joined Chicago in 1985 and left in 2016, injected palpable skill and energy into the band’s revolving door of members, but couldn’t right this once mighty musical ship on his own. The absence of photo captions in the accompanying 20-page booklet seems slipshod, if not inexcusable, but the earliest recordings here attest to what a mighty band Chicago was in its heyday.
The Clash’s “London Calling Scrapbook” isn’t quite a museum piece, even if it does celebrate the 40th anniversary of this highly influential English punk-and-beyond band’s two-album 1979 magnum opus, “London Calling.” That’s because this may be the only box set-cum-book of the year whose release coincides with a museum exhibit — specifically, “London Calling: 40 Years of the Clash,” now at the Museum of London. The album itself remains unchanged, at least in this box set, which features all 19 songs from the original “London Calling” on a single CD, sans any previously unreleased alternate versions or outtakes. The music is still riveting, as the four-man band flexes its stylistic muscles with memorable forays into reggae with a lively-up-yourself cover version of The Rulers’ “Wrong ‘em Boyo” and a charged rendition of the Vince Taylor rockabilly chestnut “Brand New Cadillac.”
A veritable musical explosion, “London’s Calling” was subsequently cited as an inspiration by everyone from U2 and Nirvana to Bruce Springsteen and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. But it is the story (or, rather, stories) behind the album that is front and center in “Scrapbook,” which pairs the CD with a 120-page book that combines material from the band’s archives with extensive photos by longtime Clash photographer Pennie Smith, who shot the iconic concert photo — featured on the cover of “London Calling” — of enraged Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his instrument on stage. There are also contributions from Ray Lowry, the art designer for “London Calling,” most notably his “Clash USA ‘79” tour columns, which were originally published in the English music weekly NME. There are also reproductions of backstage passes, set lists and hand-written lyrics, along with photos taken by fans and the “Story of the Clash,” written in 1979 by two of the band’s co-founders, Mick Jones and the now-deceased Joe Strummer. For those fans unable to attend the current Museum of London exhibit honoring the band, “London Calling Scrapbook” offers a no-travel alternative.
“The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions” was previously released in 2006 as a 4-CD set that compiled the five albums jazz trumpet icon Miles Davis and the first of his fabled quintets recorded in just three days of studio sessions. The first day, in 1955, resulted in the album “The New Miles Davis Quintet.” The second and third days — in May and October of 1956, respectively — resulted in the albums “Workin’,” “Steamin’,” “Cookin’ ” and “Relaxin’.” That four such excellent works could be recorded in a mere two days remains a towering achievement for any band, although no other band boasted the incomparable talents of budding sax giant John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Also included on this 6-vinyl record set is a “bonus” LP of live recordings from a 1956 TV appearance and two club dates. Since the same “bonus” LP was in the 2006 CD box set, the real selling point here is the superior audio quality afforded listeners by the 180-gram vinyl on which these timeless albums now appear. The sterling music they contain was instrumental in creating an enduring template for straight-ahead jazz bands. With this box set, you can hear exactly how Davis and his band did it.
The Doors’ most overtly pop-friendly album, “The Soft Parade” features the snappy Top 10 single as “Touch Me,” which was quickly covered by several middle-of-the-road acts. The entire album appears here in remixed form, along with five songs — including “Touch Me” and “Runnin’ Blue” — that have had their original brass and string section parts replaced by Robbie Krieger’s newly recorded guitar overdubs. Also freshly added to some selections are new bass parts by Stone Temple Pilots’ Robert DeLeo, who was 5 when Doors’ singer Jim Morrison died in 1971 at the age of 27. There’s also an early version of “Roadhouse Blues,” on which keyboardist Ray Manzarek subs for Morrison on vocals, and a 64-minute (!) studio jam session, “Rock is Dead,” that answers the rarely asked question: What would Morrison sound like covering the early Elvis Presley cuts “Mystery Train” and “Love Me Tender?” (Answer: Drunk, bemused and engaged, sometimes all at the same time.)
It was more than a simple twist of fate that led Bob Dylan to mount a tour of New England theaters in late 1975 with such musical pals as Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Neuwirth. They were backed by a band that featured the young T-Bone Burnett, former David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson and violinist Scarlet Rivera, among others. Fueled by a desire for spontaneity, the Rolling Thunder Revue was — more pointedly — the recoiling Dylan’s reaction to the enormity of his 1974 comeback tour with The Band. That lengthy arena trek, which resulted in the live double-album “Before the Flood,” proved hugely profitable, but it made Dylan yearn for the intimacy of his early, pre-stardom days. So, much like Paul McCartney did on his first post-Beatles’ tour with Wings in 1972, Dylan and company would roll into towns with no warning to perform freewheeling shows that made no mention of his name. Word-of-mouth ensured packed houses in those pre-internet days, although the “houses” in question were far from arena-sized.
Despite (and because) of its short duration, that 1975 tour swiftly took on a mythic stature, as evidenced by the recent Netflix film documentary, “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.” Never mind that Dylan is suitably vague about his motivation in a 2015 on-camera interview, insisting: “I don’t have a clue” — what the Rolling Thunder tour was about — “because it’s about nothing! It’s just something that happened 40 years (ago), and that’s the truth of it.” This set presents 10½ hours of that truth, including five complete concerts and three discs of so-so rehearsals and various odd and ends. For Dylan completists, it’s a lot of a mostly very good thing and while the rehearsals lack excitement, it’s intriguing to hear how arrangements of songs take shape before being transformed and elevated in concert.
All told, this set offers 148 tracks of music, 100 of them previously unreleased, although the set lists from those five concerts only differ by a few songs from show to show. Where Dylan’s 1974 tour with The Band often found him playing the role of, well, Dylan, with Rolling Thunder he was happy to be himself — and to significantly up his game, whether performing such favorites as “It Ain’t Me Babe” or such then-not-yet-released songs as “Romance in Durango.” What’s missing — and what would have provided welcome context and contrast are the nightly songs that featured Baez, McGuinn, Ronson and other Revue members commanding center stage before Dylan came on. Those performances, perhaps, are meant for another day — and another box set.
Recorded live over two days in January 1972 at a Los Angeles church, Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” still ranks as the most impassioned and inspiring live gospel-music albums made by any solo artist not named Mahalia Jackson (to cite Franklin’s biggest inspiration and key mentor). Originally released that same year as a 14-track album, this expanded new version more than doubles that number. Like the original album and last year’s belatedly issued film of the concert, “Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings” captures Franklin at the peak of her astounding vocal powers. Accompanied by the Rev. James Cleveland, Ken Luper and the Southern California Community Choir, Franklin soars ever higher. And when she digs into “God Will Take Care of You” and “Mary, Don’t You Weep” — which clock in at 9 minutes and 8 minutes, 25 seconds, respectively — believers and non-believers alike will be hard pressed not to shout out a hearty “Hallelujah!”
While he never broke big in the U.S., Irish blues-rock dynamo Rory Gallagher was so popular in Europe that — in 1972 — he beat out Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to win Top Guitarist honors in the prestigious Melody Maker annual readers’ poll. Gallagher, who died in 1995 at the age of 47, counted ex-Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, Joe Bonamassa, U2’s the Edge and Queen’s Brian May among his biggest admirers. This 36-song compilation mixes studio, concert and radio and TV broadcast recordings. Also included are his guest appearances with blues masters Muddy Waters and Albert King, former Cream mainstay Jack Bruce, skiffle music pioneer Lonnie Donegan and more. Gallagher, who was also an adept singer, stands out whether leading his own band or teamed with a famous collaborator. Most of the 36 songs featured in this set are familiar, but 27 of the versions here have not been available before.
Electric guitar visionary Jimi Hendrix formed Band Of Gypsys with drummer/singer Buddy Miles and bassist /singerBilly Cox in October 1969, only 11 months before Hendrix died at the age of 27. Apart from an under-the-radar warm-up club gig, the trio performed live only four times — two shows on Dec. 31, 1969, and two more on Jan. 1, 1970 — at New York’s Fillmore East. The result was the six-song 1970 live album, “Band of Gypsys,” which found Hendrix and his short-lived new band adding red-hot funk and soul to the guitarist’s blues-infused hard-rock and psychedelia. This box set, billed as the first complete official collection of all four of the trio’s Fillmore shows, mixes moments of sloppy jamming with dazzling displays of near-telepathic musical interplay. Yet, even with a running time of 315 minutes, it inexplicably omits five songs from the band’s second Jan. 1 Fillmore concert.
Curtis Mayfield lost no time launching his solo career in 1970 after he left his band, The Impressions. The Chicago-bred soul music great made eight albums over the next four years. More impressive still, he maintained a high standard on all of them, writing first-rate songs that examined love and charged social and political issues with skill and insight. As its title implies, this compilation of his studio albums omits the two live releases Mayfield did in that four-year period, both of which were exemplary. It also skips his 1974 studio album, “Got to Find a Way,” and his superb 1972 film soundtrack, “Super Fly,” which contains such classic songs as “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead” and the percolating title track. The four studio albums that are here — 1970’s “Curtis,” 1971’s “Roots,” 1973’s “Back to the World” and 1974’s “Sweet Exorcist” — provide a sound, if incomplete, testament to the many talents of Mayfield, who died in 1999 at the age of 57.
That Steve Miller appears to have not written or released any new songs since 1993 is of little concern to most of his followers, who go to his concerts to hear the hits by the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. There’s nothing new on this 52-song collection, which features such fan favorites as “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Take the Money and Run.” But it does include 38 previously unreleased recordings, including rehearsals, demos, alternate versions and live cuts, as well as five “newly uncovered” songs Miller and his band made in the 1960s and ‘70s. Also featured here is a DVD with 21 concert performances, including two songs — “Space Cowboy” and “Kow Kow Calculator” — for which the footage was provided by San Diego’s Reelin’ in the Years Productions. For good measure, the set includes 10 guitar picks and an “authentic backstage pass.”
Last year saw the release of the first posthumous Tom Petty box set, “An American Treasure,” which contains 63 songs on four CDs covering the arc of Petty’s career as a band leader and solo artist . “The Best of Everything,” has 38 re-mastered songs on — take your pick — two CDs or four vinyl albums Only one of those songs is previously unreleased, the intensely melancholic “For Real,” which almost sounds like Petty wrote his own elegy a while before his sudden death in 2016. Where “An American Treasure” offered a lengthy essay by veteran rock scribe Bud Scoppa, “The Best of Everything” contains an essay by Oscar-winner (and former San Diego rock scribe) Cameron Crowe. Those wanting to take a deep dive should get “An American Treasure,” if they don’t already have it. For more casual listeners, “The Best of Everything” should suffice.
It is sobering to note that all four of the Ramones’ founding members are deceased, all the more so as their combustible brand of “One-two-three-four!” punk-rock continues to serve as a vital template for successive generations of bands. This box set features re-mastered vinyl and CD versions version of “It’s Alive,” the 28-song 1979 live album that was recorded in late 1977 during the Ramones’ tour of England. It also contains three additional live albums — each with 27 songs — from the same tour that are officially released here for the first time. The repertoire on all four albums draws from the band’s first three studio albums. The set lists for each of these four concerts is almost identical, which will be a minus for all but the most devoted fans. although it’s impressive to hear how consistent the group was from one show to the next. England, significantly, embraced the Ramones early on and their high-throttle, no-nonsense music was a pivotal inspiration for the Sex Pistols, the Clash and numerous other bands. The buzz the Ramones generated in 1977 in the U.K. was so great in that even Elton John dropped by at a show to check things out first-hand. Trainspotting listeners will be able to trace some of the Ramones’ early influences through the band’s live cover versions here of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance,” Chris Montez’s “Let’s Dance,” The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” and The Rivieras’ “California Sun.”
Looking for previously unreleased tracks or alternate versions of well-known songs by Rod Stewart? You won’t find any here. Nor will you find any accompanying book or booklet about the man and his work, or any credits for the many musicians who perform on these 14 albums from Stewart’s long tenure with Warner Bros. Records. Moreover, apart from 1976’s “A Night on the Town,” none of these hit and (more often) miss efforts match the raspy-voiced star’s three finest albums, specifically, 1970’s “Gasoline Alley,” 1971’s “Every Picture Tells a Story” and 1972’s “Never a Dull Moment.” Yet, even when he is clearly punching the clock on most of the numbers on “Body Wishes,” “Out of Order” and several other albums that even Stewart diehards will admit are negligible, there are moments when his singing is undeniably captivating. And, with a price that comes out to just over $4 per album for this 14-disc set, the price is right. (Fun fact, or not: This is the first box set in memory whose back cover prominently includes the name of the artist’s manager.)
“Let It Bleed” was released in December 1969, just one day after the the Rolling Stones headlined Altamont, the disastrous free concert in Northern California where violence predominated and one fan was murdered. It was also the first album by the pioneering English band to feature guitarist Mick Taylor in place of Brian Jones, who was fired in June and died just a few weeks later under a shroud of mystery. Both Jones and Taylor appear on “Let It Bleed,” which perfectly captures both the swagger and the apocalyptic dread of the late 1960s. What results sounds like both a farewell and a rebirth, as the Stones produced their second truly great album of the decade (1968’s “Beggars Banquet” was the first). This coffee table book-sized box set offers remastered mono and stereo mixes of “Let It Bleed,” which originally came out only in stereo. The songs, including “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” sound more potent than ever. What’s missing, sadly, are any early or alternate versions that could provide insight into the Stones’ creative process at a time when the band was absolutely at its most creative.
Is a 6-CD James Taylor box set worth more than a 6-CD Bad Company box set? That’s not a rhetorical question. Both were released this year by Warner Bros./Rhino. Both are almost identically packaged and do not contain any previously unreleased material. It’s curious, then, that Taylor’s box set — priced at $44.99 — costs $4.99 more than Bad Company’s. Regardless, Taylor’s is the better deal by far, thanks to the consistent excellence of his singing and songwriting. The 75 selections here span the six albums he recorded between 1970 and 1976, starting with “Sweet Baby James” and concluding with the underrated “In the Pocket.” Peter Asher, who produced several of these albums and managed Taylor for 25 years, has lovingly overseen their re-mastering for this set.
First, the bad news. With a price of more than $100, and a complete absence of any previously unreleased material, this six-album, vinyl-only box set is one of the priciest of the year. Now, the good news. With the exception of 1974’s under-cooked “When the Eagle Flies,” five of these six albums are classics or near-classics – “Mr. Fantasy,” “Traffic,” “John Barleycorn Must Die,” “Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory” and “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys.” Presented in their original gate-fold sleeves on 180 gram vinyl, they document the evolution of one of England’s most gifted and distinctive bands of its era. Rock, folk, jazz, funk — Traffic drew from them all to create a distinctive blend that was by turns warm and rustic, snappy and sophisticated, forward-looking and mindful of the traditions its music was bending and extending. It’s telling how many of these songs Traffic co-founder Steve Winwood still performs in concert to this day, from “Pearly Queen” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” to “Empty Pages” and the stirring title track of “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys.”
Definitive, indeed! Slightly fewer than 2,000 copies were released this year of the limited-edition 38-CD box set, which featured all 432 musical performances recorded at the famed Woodstock festival in 1969. Fortunately, for those not inclined to pay $799.98 for that gargantuan set, there are other, more compact options. The best bet is the 10-CD version. It features selections by all 32 of the bands and solo artists who were featured at the three-day music marathon, which — boosted by the Oscar-winning 1970 film documentary and its triple-album soundtrack — played a pivotal role in making international stars of such acts as Santana, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (whose Woodstock appearance marked CSNY’s second gig anywhere).
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Two of the festival’s biggest stars, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, died in 1970, both at the age of 27. Only a handful of Woodstock veterans — most notably Santana, Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie and The Who (two of whose four founding members are deceased) — still actively tour and record today. “Back to the Garden” captures many of the event’s highs, as well as its lows (an interminably unfocused set by the Grateful Dead being the most egregious). Both elements are necessary to accurately document what remains the most famous and influential rock festival of the 20th century.
Considering how meticulous the late Frank Zappa was about every facet of his music and career, the timing seems strangely off on this “40th Anniversary” box set, which comes 43 years after the 1976 concert captured on the 1978 live double-album, “Zappa in New York.” But why quibble over the math on this massively expanded release, which now includes three hours worth of additional performances from the same batch of New York concerts that yielded the original “Zappa in New York,” along with 48 minutes more of what is identified as “bonus vault content?” One of those bonuses is a 2017 studio recording of the Zappa-penned percussion opus, “Black Page,” which is performed here on piano by longtime Zappa band percussionist Ruth Underwood. There are also several live versions of “The Black Page,” none of them alike. That was par for the course for Zappa, who would spend weeks or even months rehearsing for tours with his band, the better to nail his deviously intricate compositions and then use them as launching pads for variations and improvisation.
“Zappa in New York” features a number of musicians who were brought on board specifically to augment Zappa and his five-piece band for the four New York gigs this expanded box set documents. They include vibraphonist Dave Samuels and a stupendous brass section of trumpeter Randy Brecker, trombonist Tom Malone and saxophonists Michael Brecker, Lou Marini and Ronnie Cuber. Ever the perfectionist, Zappa also used other musicians to add overdubs, amplifying the penchant he demonstrated through much of his career for mixing live and studio recordings together. The four newly re-mixed and re-mastered concerts presented here, although not quite in their entirety, document how serious and humorous Zappa’s music could be and how satirical and scatological his song lyrics could be — a combination that could be uniquely sophisticated and juvenile at the same time.
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