Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

THE BAND Part 2 – This Band’s On Fire

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.

Front cover of “Music From Big Pink” LP (painted by Bob Dylan)

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.

Back cover of “Music From Big Pink” LP

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.

15 comments on “THE BAND Part 2 – This Band’s On Fire

  1. Brian
    June 2, 2011

    Great write-up as always Rich. Those first two albums really are perfect. I actually give “Big Pink” the slightest edge and go figure- my favorite song off of it is “Chest Fever”. Totally agree with you on Richard Manuel’s voice. Can’t beat a group where everyone can sing that well. Looking forward to your future Band write-ups as the only other two I have are “Last Waltz” and “Stagefright”. And oh yeah “Basement Tapes”.


    • KamerTunesBlog
      June 2, 2011

      Thanks, Brian. Not sure if I made it clear that I really like “Chest Fever” too. I just think it’s so different from anything else on the album (and anything else they recorded, really). Being a big fan of Deep Purple and Vanilla Fudge, it makes sense that I would love that song, but I wasn’t surprised that a couple of people I’ve spoken to really dislike it. Stage Fright is an excellent album, and I’ll be writing about that and a few others either this weekend or early next week. I still need to check out your albums of 1967. Looking forward to it.


  2. Jon Lyness
    June 3, 2011

    Wow, nice writeups, Rich. Very true that “it’s not easy deciding where to start a discussion about The Band”… you could write a tome about Garth Hudson’s contributions alone… but that said, I think you’ve done a great job! As you know, I’m a huge fan of these guys, to the point that I’ve sought out lots of their solo albums and albums by other artists where they contributed over the years. There’s such a richness and depth to their singing and playing, both collectively and apart. A couple more thoughts:

    –Rocking Chair is one of my favorites in their catalogue, and one of Richard Manuel’s best vocals ever IMO. Listen also to the live version on Rock of Ages… love Richard’s phrasing (subtly different from the studio album) and the harmonies are gorgeous. Also worth checking out is the “Classic Albums/The Making of The Band” DVD from the 90s, where Levon and John Simon deconstruct the song and its layered harmonies, and talk very wistfully about Richard.

    –King Harvest is a true gem, and in many ways one of their most unique signature songs. The lyrics (by Robertson) contrast imagery of a rural (Southern?) past left behind with experiences of (Northern?) labor and unions in a way that’s both thoughtful and bittersweet. The playing and harmonies are just first-rate, and it’s one of those songs no other band could have pulled off. It’s also a quite rare rock song where the chorus is actually softer/quieter than the verses…I’m not sure I can think of another song that quite does that.

    –The Band’s fan-run web site (http://theband.hiof.no) is a treasure trove of discographies and information, if you’re inclined to dig.

    Great reviews; look forward to more! 🙂



    • KamerTunesBlog
      June 5, 2011

      Hi Jon. Thanks for reading, and for your comment. I was just listening to “Rock Of Ages” yesterday, and I agree that the version of “Rocking Chair” (which I think was on the bonus disc, right?) is wonderful. I’ll be posting about that live album as well as the two studio albums that preceded it within the next couple of days.

      A friend of mine lent me that Classic Albums DVD, but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. I’ve enjoyed all of the videos in that series, and now that I know this album really well, I expect to thoroughly enjoy the DVD.

      That’s an interesting point about the chorus in “King Harvest…” being softer/quieter than the verses. I have to think about that, but I believe you’re right that it must be one of the (if not THE) only rock/pop songs that does that.

      The Band website that you mentioned, which I discovered a few weeks ago, has already been very helpful & informative as I’ve revisited their albums. So far with this blog, I’ve been listening to each album at least once without reading anything about it, and then I’ll look into websites, liner notes, reviews, etc., to see where I agree or disagree with the general consensus. This is also when I discover interesting tidbits about the artists & recordings that I keep in mind when re-listening to each album, and I often incorporate them into my posts.

      I really appreciate you checking out the blog & sharing your thoughts. That was the main reason I set this up, so I can start these kinds of conversations. Looking forward to chatting more soon.


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  4. stephen1001
    February 18, 2014

    Especially with ‘the band’ I really struggled to pick a standout song or two – I’m pleased to see we had a similar challenge!

    I’ll have to give Big Pink another spin, I wasn’t wow-ed by it but you make some compelling arguments, especially about missing those song-making details on preliminary listens.


    • When I started the blog I figured I would just point out the handful of key tracks from each album that made the biggest impact on me, but with these first two albums by The Band those plans changed. There was so much depth…to the songs, the vocals, the instrumentation, the interplay between each musician…that I couldn’t NOT discuss it all. It made my posts longer than expected, but also got me to delve deeper into each album I play. I hope you make some pleasant discoveries the next time you listen to Big Pink.


      • stephen1001
        February 18, 2014

        The interplay between each musician – that’s it exactly. Some groups seem to have the lead guitarist front & centre, the rhythm section pushed into the background. I think what I enjoyed most about “the brown album” was that interplay.

        Robbie Robertson (and any of the others) could probably do phenomenal solos but that they all refrain from hogging the spotlight, in favour of the solid group sound, is commendable.


      • Glad you agree. It’s one of the things that made them so special & so unique, especially for their time. Even on the later albums they usually stuck with the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” philosophy, even though I’m sure they were all clamoring for the spotlight.


  5. Ovidiu Boar
    May 9, 2014

    Makes sense reading your series, given that I’m in the midst of a serious Band obsession at the moment. This has gotten way out of hand, I think I may have lost some friends.

    I love both albums equally and infinitely, I think all the songs from both are absolutely brilliant. So glad you mentioned the lyrics of ‘Long Black Veil’, what an amazing story, brilliantly sung (also love Johnny Cash’s version of the song from ‘Live at Folsom Prison’). And then it segues into Danko’s keyboard solo that introduces ‘Long Black Veil’. Insane, I’m getting goosebumps just remembering the moment. I Shall Be Released and Tears of Rage and the only Dylan covers I can think of that surpass the originals (though it’s not exactly fair, as Manuel is co-credited on the latter). What a voice did the poor guy have.

    You were right in mentioning every single song from both albums, there’s no such thing as skipping when it comes to the Band at their peak.


    • Ovidiu Boar
      May 9, 2014

      I meant Garth’s keyboard solo, obviously.


      • Ovidiu Boar
        May 9, 2014

        And ‘Chest Fever’…


    • Glad you’re appreciating these albums as much as I do. We’re not alone, of course, as these are both considered masterpieces by many fans & critics. So true about Manuel’s voice. It’s a shame he’s no longer with us.

      I’ll be curious to see if any of their other albums hit you as much as these two. For me they’re the undisputed masterpieces of their catalog, but there’s still plenty of amazing music after them.

      Thanks for stopping by, Ovidiu. Hope you have a great weekend.


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