The Band – Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975) – Stereo-only SACD Capitol/ Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2047 – Limited Edition Original Master Recording, 40:41 ****½:
(Robbie Robertson – guitar, keyboards, piano, clavinet, melodica; Levon Helm – guitar, drums, vocals; Garth Hudson – organ, synthesizer, bass, accordion, piccolo, saxophones; Rick Danko – bass, harmonica, violin, guitar, vocals; Richard Manuel – piano, congas, drums, keyboards, organ, clavinet, vocals)
Viewed as a comeback album for The Band in 1975, after no studio albums for four years, Northern Lights-Southern Cross was also an album that broke through some new boundaries, as the group incorporated synthesizers and utilized 24 track technology. As you can see from the list of instruments above utilized in this recording the move to 24 track was quite useful. It can also be seen that The Band was more than a country rock roots band. They incorporated perhaps more instruments than almost anyone else recording at that time. Most every member could play numerous instruments and bringing in brass and woodwinds at that time was limited to groups with many more members. Also impressive is a “share the spotlight attitude” with song writing and vocals. Simply stated, The Band, who really only recorded for half a decade, left a legacy that still stands today.
The choice of Northern Lights-Southern Cross for getting the Mo-Fi treatment is an interesting one as its highly recognizable hit songs were limited to “Ophelia”, and “It Makes No Difference.” However, in my mind the true genius of this group is expressed in “Acadian Driftwood.” The vocal harmony blend of Manuel, Levon, and Danko along with the piccolo of Garth Hudson, and the clavinet of Manuel, bring to mind a movie sound set with Acadian dancers celebrating the end of the war. It has a march anthemic quality that bears repeated listening.
“Forbidden Fruit” features the inimitable vocals of Danko and Helm and the instrumental stars are Garth Hudson’s Lowrey organ and synthesizer, and the blazing guitar solo of Robbie Robertson. “Hobo Jungle” celebrates the life and travails of the wandering hobo and Richard Manuel’s voice is deeply moving. It is hard to think of a group that had so many distinguished vocalists as The Band. “Ophelia” with its jaunty strut, horns, and refrain of the lost winsome woman still shines today and the gloriousness of the wizardry of their Gain 2 remastering brings this musical bliss to anyone fortunate to have this stereo SACD marvel.
The lesser known songs such as “Ring Your Bell”, “Jupiter Hollow”, and “Rags and Bones” have their own vocal and instrumental treasures to share as well. The inclusion of brass, woodwinds, organs and synthesizers add a spice that few pedestrian guitar, bass, and drum bands could match for a feel good mood.
“It Makes No Difference” is likely the most recognizable track on this album for the three vocals mix, Robbie’s moving guitar work, and Hudson’s soprano saxophone solo.
Levon Helm and Rick Danko attempted solo careers and Robbie Robertson went on to do film scoring. Richard Manuel’s passing in 1986 and Danko’s death in 1999 put an end to any chance of a serious reforming of The Band. Luckily, we have their wonderful The Last Waltz concert film, and numerous “best-of” box sets to celebrate the collective genius of The Band. Those that value true audiophile sound to “experience” the talents of this super group can make a investment in audio ecstasy by purchasing the Mo-Fi issue of Northern Lights – Southern Cross.
(Please note that this SACD issue does not include alternate takes of “Twilight” and “Christmas Must be Tonight.” found on some editions of this album )
TrackList: Forbidden Fruit, Hobo Jungle, Ophelia, Acadian Driftwood, Ring Your Bell, It Makes No Difference, Jupiter Hollow, Rags and Bones
– Jeff Krow