Saturday, October 13, 2012

Spending some time with The Band

The Band ... Wow. Now THAT is a band. (Now is the time for a collective groan.)

I've been listening to The Band a lot lately. It's been time well spent!

I came to the group years ago (like, oh, around 2000) through the usual path ... I was getting into Bob Dylan, and I kept reading about The Basement Tapes and the group that Bob recorded them with. There were no Lennons or McCartneys in this group. No George Harrison, no Ringo Starr. No Clapton. No superstars.

The Band were musicians. Veterans of the road. Rhythm and blues, country and western, rockabilly, rock and roll, gospel ... Throw that in a blender, add some Walt Whitman, some Bach, some Canadian winter and a dash of Arkansas moonshine -- out comes The Band.

Robbie Robertson (guitar), Levon Helm (drums, mandolin), Richard Manuel (piano), Rick Danko (bass) and Garth Hudson (keyboards) crafted music that is so quintessentially American, so vivid and surreal (and yet somehow also subtle) ... conjuring images of a time and of places that surely MUST have existed, as the mind starts painting pictures of the scenery and people just minutes into their materials.

Robertson, Manuel, Danko and Hudson came from our northern neighbor Canada, and Helm hailed from the south of the United States. Together, they created music that was gritty and beautiful, imperfect and sublime, haunting and rewarding.

The group's first three albums ("Music from Big Pink," "The Band" and "Stage Fright") are absolute classics. Their covers album ("Moondog Matinee") is one of the greatest collections of covers that any group has managed to piece together (many of the covers transcend the very idea, and exist comfortably alongside the original recordings). The two live albums released by the original group configuration during their hey-day ("Rock of Ages" and a big portion of "The Last Waltz") are high-water marks of concert recordings, period.

The Canadian contingent fell in love with American blues and R&B by hearing the music on late-night radio. They all developed an enjoyment of performing at a young age, performing for family and friends long before they ever found each other. Hudson was (and still is) a bit of a genius, mastering music and understanding chords and progressions to such a depth that he became a bit of a maestro in the live setting. (Later, after he was approached to join a young version of The Band, he was able to gain tacit approval from his parents by taking the role of tutor to the other members.)

Helm, well, he grew up in the south. Strumming a guitar, banging out a beat, singing and laughing and having a good time were important. That he grew up in the very region that so entranced Robbie Robertson, who had visions of the trains and of Civil War ruins and of shady characters and carnivals and backwoods rural America, gave The Band the voice and soul that their best music provided.

These guys gigged throughout Canada, hooking up with Ronnie Hawkins and serving as his regular band for a spell. When they really were on fire, it was a sight to see. Levon and The Hawks (as The Band touted themselves around this time) were a road band that could rock and roll, stomp and excite as good as anyone else.

In the mid 1960s, when Bob Dylan went electric and Rock (without the "and roll") seemed to be born, Levon and The Hawks hooked up with Bob (though Helm didn't quite groove with things and departed) and Dylan blew the fans away with the sound provided by this backing group.

In 1967, after the amphetamine craze of 1965/1966, Dylan recuperated in Woodstock. Robertson, Manuel, Danko and Hudson were also living in Woodstock, and the five would gather in the basement of a house known as Big Pink to woodshed. Some new songs, some covers, a smorgasbord of music, a treasure trove of tunes. Helm came back and joined in. All of this material became known as "The Basement Tapes," and some of the songs would see commercial release in 1975 (and in various box sets afterward).

It was here that Levon and The Hawks became The Band.

"Music from Big Pink" came first, released in 1968, it's about as far from The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors as you can get. Sometimes jarring, sometimes understated, but always beautiful ... From the sublime yearning vocals of Richard Manuel to the howl of Levon Helm, from the delightful keyboard madness of Garth Hudson to the tasteful guitar fills of Robbie Robertson, to the brilliant bass fills and harmony lines from Rick Danko, "Big Pink" is a startling and refreshing album from start to finish.

No stone is left unturned. From the remarkable energy of "Chest Fever" to the entrancing pull of "I Shall Be Released," The Band turn in a debut that seemed almost impossible to top.

Richard Manuel's vocal performances, especially, are beyond perfect. Delicate, soulful, perfect in an imperfect way (a delivery so heartfelt can be nothing but pure, even if there's a waver to it). His songs "Lonesome Suzie" and "In a Station" are overlooked marvels.

The next year, The Band released an album that many consider to be among the greatest rock albums of all time. "The Band" seems to be a living, breathing testament to post-Civil War dust bowl America. Tales of southern pride bent and broken, of unions and failed crops, of desperation and love and dances ... This is Americana of the highest order.

The characters here are colorful, believable and in no way herald some false sentimentality for bygone years. Rather, one feels almost like the lyrics and music are drawing pictures and orchestrating historical films in a way. This is no pining for the way things were as much as it seems to be a very contemporary address ... The Band makes history come to life.

Robbie Robertson's music takes on a character and tone that stood apart from the sounds of 1969. Nothing in contemporary rock sounded this pastoral. Whereas Joe Cocker howled to the heavens and Ten Years After brought hard rock to the masses, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm transported listeners with insecurity and whiskey smoothness on "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)." Seldom has poverty and the fears (and hopes) of what tomorrow may bring been so believably expressed.

If 1970's "Stage Fright" seems to be slightly less fulfilling than the previous two records, that's only because "Big Pink" and "The Band" set such amazingly high standards. "Stage Fright" has an energy and steps away from the suspended time set by those albums. "Stage Fright" is a bit more contemporary, but it's no less fulfilling or engaging. And given that Robbie actually did suffer from stage fright, much of the material seems to carry a much more personal edge.

Drugs, the burdens of growing fame and expectation and the start of drifting friendships can be found in the album. Levon's voice has an uncharacteristic tone on "Strawberry Wine" that some ascribe to his abuse of heroin, and Richard Manuel contributed his last two songs for The Band on this record ("Sleeping" and "Just Another Whistle Stop"). Time on the road and the difficulty of finding a mature path certainly informs the music on this album more than on its predecessors.

But where the album really shines for me is on the track "The Shape I'm In." Whether this is commentary on Richard Manuel as his dependency on alcohol and harder drugs was taking its toll on him, or whether it was a broad overview on rock and roll indulgence, it has an undeniable groove and a vulnerability that hooks the listener.

"Stage Fright" has its share of characters and scenery. Take "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" for example. It's kind of a similar to the Neil Diamond track "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" from 1969. There are saints and sinners, losers and winners ... and they are all at The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show. It may lack some of the depth and imagery of songs like "The Weight," but it's pleasing in its own right and really stood out in the live setting.

After "Stage Fright," The Band really started to drift. Robbie had assumed a larger role in the band as the rest of the band members stopped contributing material and seemed more interested in having a good time than rehearsing and coming up with new material. There were heights left, to be sure, but there were some low times as well.

"Cahoots," the group's fourth album, isn't exactly inspired. It has a few good tracks, like "Life is a Carnival" and their take on Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece." But the rest of the album fails to conjure the magic or imagery of the first three.

Following "Cahoots," The Band decided to record a series of shows that kind of capped the first part of their career. An amazing and engaging collection of concert material, "Rock of Ages" may be the pinnacle of The Band's output. It has an energy and zest that even the first two albums don't capture, and all The Band members are still at their performing peaks. All of their best songs are here, as well as some exciting covers.

Next came their ultimate covers album, "Moondog Matinee." The song choices are inspired, and all members of the group have a chance to shine with great vocals and great instrumental flourishes. A particular favorite of mine is "Mystery Train," which Robbie penned some additional lyrics to (with the permission of Sam Phillips).

Following the rush of working on "Rock of Ages" and "Moondog Matinee," The Band reunited with Bob Dylan to work on Dylan's "Planet Waves" album and for the resulting "Tour 74" concert series, which generated the live album "Before the Flood."

Two sets of music from a musical pairing that set the world on fire in 1966? Whew. That's a lot of material. A hectic rush.

But they weren't done.

THEN came "The Basement Tapes." That's right, the mythic materials that spawned The Band and generated interest in their first album were finally out there. The daffy materials, the back-to-the-roots R&B, flashes of country and fables. The material lived (and continues to live) up to its reputation.

With all the interest and hysteria of a Dylan/The Band reunion, 1974 and 1975 were commercially powerful years for all involved. The Band was playing so forcefully, so tightly, and the enthusiasm for music was still there. The Band wasn't a spent force, they still had a groove together.

The Band rode this energy and brotherhood to their last great studio album, "Northern Lights - Southern Cross." "Northern Lights" brings back the feeling and sounds of "The Band" and "Big Pink." Standout tracks like "Ophelia," "Acadian Driftwood" and "It Makes No Difference" would make the album a classic on their own.

Add on other great album tracks like the urban "Forbidden Fruit" and the gorgeous "Jupiter Hollow," with its layers of keyboard sounds and wonderful 3-part harmonies from Richard, Rick and Levon (another reason why the album has that classic feel), and "Northern Lights" becomes an album that all fans of The Band should own.

That can't be said for their next studio album, and the last of The Band's studio efforts to feature all five of the original members, "Islands."

"Islands" is a half-hearted album, with more than a little stink of contractual obligation clinging to it. While The Band was preparing for it's big farewell event (which would be encapsulated in "The Last Waltz"), they were fitting in sessions for this final album that they owed to the company. It sounds rushed, uninspired and limp. The only moments of interest I find come with "Georgia On My Mind," featuring a really involved Richard vocal, and "Knockin' Lost John," which was the second (and last) time Robbie took a lead vocal on a studio album by the group ("To Kingdom Come" from "Big Pink" being the first ... Robbie would do one other lead vocal on a "Last Waltz" track).

While "Islands" is certainly a dud in The Band's catalog, they DID manage to end on a high note with "The Last Waltz."

Talk about multimedia events.

A turkey dinner. Poetry readings. Guest performances from Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Vignette scenes taped with The Staples Singers and Emmylou Harris. A couple of new songs also were included, "The Well" and "Out of the Blue" (the "Waltz" track that features Robbie's lead vocal). It was released as a triple album, and was a feature film.

What a way to bow out. An official retirement, with a lot of big names, good food and a few drugs here and there. No one had quite gone out this way before.

And it was amazing. Moving performances, driving power, some cocaine here and there, a celebration of style and music and influences ... It was surely the biggest deal since Woodstock and the concerts for Bangla Desh. Nothing quite like it would happen again until Live Aid in 1985.

After this, Robbie Robertson went his own way. He started a solo career, and the rest of the band members tried to carve their own paths.

It didn't quite work out for them. Despite different attempts, and some good material, Levon, Richard, Rick and Garth never found a footing in solo success.

In the early Eighties, those four decided to return to the road as The Band. Robbie wasn't too excited about the idea, as he thought the group exited the scene with such flair and finality (and he wasn't too jazzed about taking the weight of their success on his shoulders again). But he gave the others his blessing to move forward, and they did. They did a couple of albums and they toured a lot.

But it wasn't enough. Their prestige never matched the heights of the late 1960s or 1970s.

Sadness came throughout the following years.

A rift developed between Levon and Robbie, as Levon felt that Robbie had taken advantage of the others and reaped the financial rewards of the group's labors (he felt songwriting royalties and producers royalties had cut out the rest of the group members).

Then came the first death. Richard Manuel hung himself with a belt in a hotel room after a show in 1986. He was 42. His struggles with alcohol, drugs and depression became too much, and his beautiful voice and moving presence fell forever silent.

Days after he finished a tour, Rick Danko went to sleep and never woke up. He died in 1999 from heart failure. His years of alcoholism and drug abuse had taken its toll. He was 56. His enthusiasm and warmth passed, with his voice and superb bass playing.

Earlier this year, Levon Helm became the next member to pass. Cancer took this man at the age of 71, but not before he released a couple of acclaimed albums in his final years that returned his voice, his drumming and his southern charm to appreciative audiences.

The three voices of The Band are gone now. Robbie remains, as does Garth. The music is still here, and the fan base continues to grow. The music speaks for itself, even if the voices on the records no longer can.

My love for The Band has only increased since my first interest of the group was sparked. In the last couple of weeks, I've been picking up the remastered CDs that feature bonus tracks from different sessions. I've been immersing myself in "The Basement Tapes."

There's something comforting in the music of The Band. The great visuals. The feel of the music. The moods. The subtle flashes and the reined in impact of the music and words that let your mind fill in the blanks. The sense of struggles in the past, the fact that life goes on, that beautiful music is made and lasts. It's comfort music, it's engaging music, it's invigorating music. It's American music. Important music.

The Band's music is material worth investigating. I find that it sustains me, and I'm regularly rewarded when I let it absorb me. I hope it does the same for you.

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