Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
It’s not easy deciding where to start a discussion about The Band. They may have been known for their work with Bob Dylan in the mid-60s, as well as their earlier live performances as The Hawks (backing up Ronnie Hawkins, and later led by his fellow Arkansas native, Levon Helm), but no one could have predicted how immediate and long-lasting their impact on the music world would be when they recorded under their new name. Their music simply sounded like nothing that came before it. What exactly made them so special, and why does their music still endure more than 40 years after their first album? I suppose they were just the right combination of musicians at the right time, with an amazing collection of songs. As I’ve pointed out before, my goal with this blog is not to do in-depth album reviews, but to document my feelings about each album as I spend time listening to them, learning about them, and immersing myself in the music. However, I need to go a little more in-depth than usual here.
I’ve listened to each of their first four albums numerous times in the last 7-10 days, and with each listen I discovered details that I had previously missed, and many songs burrowed their way into my head, becoming new favorites along the way. I already knew several songs from Music From Big Pink (1968) fairly well. “Tears Of Rage” is a wonderful song, but a strange way to begin a debut album, its dirge-like tempo and the aching vocals of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko are not something you would expect to immediately grab many listeners, but it works. “The Weight” (which most people probably know from its familiar “take a load off, Fanny” refrain) is one of the songs that The Band are best known for, even to casual fans. In the sequence of the record, it’s also our introduction to the lead vocals of drummer Levon Helm, who brings a Southern twang to their sound (and is their most effective rock ‘n’ roll voice). My favorite part of this song, however, is Rick Danko singing “I said, wait a minute Chester…” in the fourth verse. That slight crack in his voice gets me every time. “Long Black Veil” is an old country ballad (from 1959, but it sounds much older), which tells an interesting story about a man sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. His only alibi is that he was sleeping with his best friend’s wife, a secret he takes to the grave. I always enjoyed the melody, but sometimes paying attention to the lyrics can enhance your enjoyment of a song, as it did for me here. “I Shall Be Released” is a Bob Dylan song that I always thought was sung by Rick Danko, but it’s actually Richard Manuel. On the surface he may be singing as a prisoner waiting for his release, but it also seems to be about a spiritual release, or possibly even death (as a release from his earthly burdens). Deep stuff, and a powerful way to close out the album.
Those were just the songs I was already familiar with. Most of the others made significant impressions on me these past couple of weeks as well. The haunting keyboard sound on “In A Station” that drew me in is a combination of clavinet (to be popularized by Stevie Wonder on his string of brilliant early-70’s albums) & electric piano that sounds like a psychedelic harpsichord. Great vocals from Manuel on this track. “Caledonian Mission” features a pleading Danko vocal performance with high harmonies by Manuel. “Chest Fever” is an odd one here. I really like this song, but the deep organ sound (courtesy of Garth Hudson) & heavy drums make this more like a Deep Purple or Vanilla Fudge song (albeit without wailing vocals or screaming guitar solos). I can imagine even staunch fans of The Band having issues with this song, but it works for me. I can also hear a direct line from the vocal harmonies to those of Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock on the Derek & The Dominos Layla album. During “We Can Talk,” I enjoyed the shift to a shuffle beat at around the 1:35 mark, as well as the strong vocal harmonies. “Lonesome Suzie,” a mournful ballad written and sung by Manuel, and the Dylan-Danko composition “This Wheel’s On Fire” are two more songs that made a strong impression on me.
Robbie Robertson was eventually considered the leader & driving force in The Band, but Music From Big Pink comes across as a more democratic album than anything else they would release. Robertson is an excellent guitar player, very underrated in fact. He rarely plays a traditional “solo,” and even when he does it’s usually not predictable. You can hear Eric Clapton’s influence on his playing, but he has more of an angular approach than the blues-based Clapton. Robertson would begin to take control on the next album, writing or co-writing all 12 songs.
After a nearly flawless debut, somehow they managed to top themselves, in my opinion, on The Band (1969). It’s not that the songs are necessarily better, but sonically & thematically it’s a more cohesive statement. Of course, the songs are pretty awesome. Two of them would be on the short list of their most widely recognized songs. “Up On Cripple Creek” features Levon Helm’s strong vocals, with a repetitive verse-chorus structure and no solos, each chorus ending with the memorable line, “a drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with Helm’s sad yet uplifting lead vocal performance and lyrics that evoke the end of the Civil War, make this a timeless song that should be considered one of the greatest songs of the last half-century. This album has so much more to offer than these two ubiquitous songs, though.
“Across The Great Divide” opens the album with a nice shuffle beat and features some honking sax from Manuel and Hudson. These guys were true multi-instrumentalists. “Rag Mama Rag” is a fun song, with Helm singing, Manuel playing drums (didn’t know that before last week), ragged (in a good way) fiddle from Danko and a tasty Hudson piano solo. “When You Awake” was a nice surprise and a new favorite. I love the ragged 3-part harmony in the choruses, with Helm especially shining through. Manuel’s vocals never sounded more beautiful than on “Whispering Pines,” and the organ reminds me of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” With a title like “Jemima Surrender,” only Levon Helm could’ve been the vocalist (he co-wrote it, too). It’s another song with Manuel on drums, and has killer 3-way harmonies and a short-but-sweet Robertson guitar solo.
“Rockin’ Chair” is a seafaring tale that sounds like it was recorded on their back porch, with Helm on mandolin and Hudson on accordion. One of my favorite discoveries is the crossing-over vocal melodies at the end of the song. Sounds like they had a blast recording this one. Another song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for a week is “Look Out Cleveland,” one of The Band’s most upbeat songs so far, with Rick Danko on vocals. The groove and stop-start pattern in the choruses might have influenced Elton John’s “Take Me To The Pilot.”
Richard Manuel turns in his most “pop” song with “Jawbone.” I have no idea what it’s about, but I still like it. Danko takes over again for “The Unfaithful Servant,” a mournful song with horns that at times recall a New Orleans funeral. Nice touch with the saxophone sound at “I can hear the whistle blowin’.” The album ends with one of their most powerful songs, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” apparently about the suffering of farmers at the hands of the government. It begins with the ominous chorus, but the remainder of the song has a funky groove, as well as a nice bluesy guitar solo from Robertson after the last chorus until the end of the song.
Wow, I probably mentioned almost every song from these two albums. There are just too many highlights, and it’s hard to leave anything out. I’m sure there are arguments among fans & critics as to which of these albums is better, but that would be a waste of time. They’re two nearly perfect albums that should be enjoyed on their own merits. Would they be able to follow these up, or be buried by the weight of expectations? I’ll be back soon to discuss that, and also talk about my newfound love of Richard Manuel’s voice.