Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
“The Band” was the perfect name for this collection of musicians: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. They had been playing together for several years, most notably as the backing band for Bob Dylan’s transition to “electric” live performer, but didn’t emerge as The Band until 1968 with the release of Music From Big Pink. In fact, I believe they didn’t even have a name when that album was originally released. While other bands at that time were stressing virtuosity and showmanship, often showcasing individual performances, The Band were a tight-knit musical conglomeration, where each part seemed perfectly constructed to work with the others. They may have been influenced by old folk, country, blues, gospel and even classical music, but in the world of popular music their influence would be just as wide-ranging. After hearing The Band, even guitar god Eric Clapton decided to quit his power trio, Cream, to pursue more laid-back, acoustic-based music in Blind Faith, Derek & The Dominoes, and his early solo career.
The radio stations I listened to in my teens didn’t play The Band that often, so the only songs I was familiar with during those years were “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I always enjoyed them, but they sounded very old to my teenage ears. Of course I enjoyed “old music” at that time (like Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, the “American Graffiti” soundtrack, the early Beatles records), but this was different. These songs sounded like they were recorded in the previous century. So I went through my adolescence assuming this was some long lost band that had three well-known songs, and I never sought out any of their albums. By my college years I started reading more about them, learned about the Dylan connection, and heard songs like “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Shape I’m In” and “I Shall Be Released.” This is when I realized that I needed to hear more from them, and in 1989 I got my hands on the newly-released 2-CD compilation, To Kingdom Come. What a perfect introduction to the diversity of music they created in their brief 8-9 year career. I also bought the soundtrack to their farewell performance in 1976, The Last Waltz, and that was the extent of my collection for about a decade.
In 2000, Capitol Records began reissuing The Band’s catalog in expanded editions, with bonus tracks and extended liner notes. I immediately bought the first two releases, Music From Big Pink and The Band, and I couldn’t believe how good they were. I realized that they were more than a best-of band, and over the next few years I purchased the remainder of their catalog, including Rhino’s 4-CD box set of The Last Waltz from 2002. I probably listened to each album a couple of times, and got to know some songs I hadn’t previously heard before, but I’m still not that familiar with a large part of their catalog, even though I would consider myself a big fan of their music. After spending a lot of time with each album over the next couple of weeks, and reading more about each release, I hope to become an even bigger fan.
One of the most impressive things about The Band is their use of dynamics. Many bands with guitar, bass, piano, drums, organ and 2-3 vocalists would fill every nook & cranny with sound, but The Band left empty spaces that allowed the songs to breathe. This is a technique I’ve tried to apply to my drumming as I’ve gotten older. It’s easy to play a lot of notes, but it takes a lot of discipline to know what NOT to play. The Band might be the first artist of the rock era to do this, and I can see why they’ve remained so influential all these years later. Combine this instrumental restraint with three great and distinct voices (Danko, Helm and Manuel), and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind band that deserves all the respect & success they’ve achieved. I’m also looking forward to learning how much Richard Manuel contributed vocally, as a number of songs I previously believed to have been sung by Rick Danko were in fact performed by Manuel. These are some of the many reasons I’m really excited about finally getting to know The Band’s catalog.