Robbie Robertson: When I Paint My 5.1 Masterpiece

Whenever we talk about artists who changed the course of rock history who aren't The Beatles, one group with perhaps the most unassuming yet wholly appropriate name tops the bill: The Band. Their homespun July 1968 debut Music From Big Pink literally turned the rock world on its collective ear to such a degree that contemporaries like Eric Clapton instantly renounced their virtuosic "look at me" playing styles and adjusted their thinking toward creating more organic and more authentic music truer to their essential selves.

Hardly a one-and-done effort, Big Pink was followed up with September 1969's equally seminal The Band—also known as The Brown Album because of its sepia-toned and textured cover art—and August 1970's reflection on the not-so-hidden cracks in the group's armor, Stage Fright.

In recent years, chief songwriter and ace guitarist Robbie Robertson has led the charge in overseeing how The Band's core catalog is being remixed, remastered, expanded, and repackaged accordingly in highly collectible 50th anniversary 13.1 x 12.7-inch multidisc box sets via Capitol/UMe. Even better, Robertson enlisted his longtime friend, venerated producer Bob Clearmountain (Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Simple Minds) to bring said original Band albums fully into the surround sound universe.


Robertson and I first discussed surround sound over a decade ago back in March 2011 when he told me, "I love the idea of putting the listener right there so he can sit in the middle of the people playing the music, like he's in another chair in the room with them." Then, when we talked about the surround mix for Big Pink in September 2018, he observed, "I love it! And I so appreciate the idea that, the closer you can get to being right in the room and right in the center of the music, closing your eyes and feeling what everyone else was feeling while playing that music—I think that's a special gift."


And now, there's even more Band manna from box set heaven. In this corner, we have the self-titled The Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition box set, which contains two CDs (including the original rough mixes of their underrated Woodstock festival performance from August 17, 1969), one LP, one 45 of "Rag Mama Rag" b/w "The Unfaithful Servant," and a Blu-ray with 24-bit/96-kHz DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 24/96 Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mixes. Meanwhile, the Stage Fright 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition box contains two CDs (including their stunning, full Live at The Royal Albert Hall performance from June 3, 1971), one LP, one 45 for "Time to Kill" b/w with "The Shape I'm In," and a Blu-ray replete with the dual 24/96 5.1 options The Band has. In other words, both collections are much, much more than "Just Another Whistle Stop."


Today, Robertson is as sold on the idea of having his—and The Band's—life's work mixed in surround sound as he ever was. "With the way technology is now, we don't have the same limitations of tape hiss and noise coming from compressors that we used to deal with," he explains. "To me, surround allows you to get closer to the music and hear what's really going on better. Sometimes I hear from people who say, 'You can't mess with what it was.' I don't disagree with that for the most part, but I appreciate what we can now overcome. This is a blessing to me—to be able to come back to these albums and go, 'Yeah! That's what I was thinking. That's what I wanted. That's what I would've done at the time if I could have,' you know?"

Clearmountain was more than happy to assist Robertson in achieving his 5.1 Band dreams. "My theory is that, because the way The Band would set up in a circle facing each other all in the same room, it threw the engineers off because they weren't used to that kind of thing in recording studios at the time," he says about The Band's philosophy for capturing the vibe of the musicians' interpersonal interactivity for both the Big Pink and The Band albums as the songs were performed essentially face to face in their shared Woodstock home basement and makeshift pool house locale in the Hollywood Hills, respectively. "And the way I like to mix surround for them is to mix discretely, and put things in different speakers. That way, you can listen to The Band in a lot of different ways. You can hear different things by putting yourself in different parts of your listening room." (Note: We'll be posting our web-exclusive deep-dive interview with Clearmountain in the coming weeks.)

Over the course of a pair of interviews conducted almost a full year apart in March 2020 and February 2021, Robertson, 77, and I discussed the literal and figurative layout of The Band, the slight shift in the staging of Stage Fright, and what might be in store for the next round of getting the rest of The Band's storied catalog in surround. To modify the title of the lead-off track on Stage Fright, welcome to The Robbie Robertson 5.1 Medicine Show! Once you get it, you can't forget it . . .