Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
For their fifth studio album, The Band released Moondog Matinee (1973), a collection of cover songs. It was originally intended to include material from their mid-60s repertoire as a touring “bar band” but instead mostly featured songs from that era which they hadn’t previously played. Many artists who normally write their own songs eventually release a covers album, which is either intended to reconnect them with their roots or to hide the fact that their songwriting well has dried up. I’m guessing it was a little of both in this case, and it also helped ease some tensions in the group. Basically, this was their chance to have some fun again, and although there’s nothing earth-shattering here, it’s certainly an enjoyable album with several highlights.
Levon Helm starts things off with “Ain’t Got No Home,” a 50’s R&B/rock ‘n’ roll song originally by Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Is that a vocoder effect on his voice in the middle of the song, giving it a modern feel? This is followed by “Holy Cow,” a fun, bouncy song (originally by Lee Dorsey) with Rick Danko on vocals. Then Richard Manuel takes over vocal duties on the bluesy, mid-tempo Bobby “Blue” Bland song “Share Your Love,” which also has some nice piano & organ (presumably by Manuel and Garth Hudson, respectively). I’ve heard “Mystery Train” performed by many artists over the years, most notably Elvis Presley, and the version here (with Helm on lead vocals, and the other two providing their trademark high harmonies) has a nice driving shuffle groove. The offbeat quirky instrumental “Third Man Theme” is an oddity here. I like it, but it doesn’t really fit the mood of the album.
My favorite song on this album is “The Great Pretender.” I’ve always loved the original by The Platters, and Manuel’s vocals & Hudson’s organ playing really elevate this version. I enjoyed Hudson’ boogie-woogie piano on Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready,” on which he also plays all of the saxophone parts. I was surprised to read that both Helm and Manuel played drums on this track. Manuel provides one of his most rocking vocals on LaVern Baker’s “Saved,” and the album ends with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which has one of Danko’s most beautiful lead vocals. Of the six bonus tracks on the remastered CD, only Chuck Berry’s “Going Back To Memphis” was originally considered for inclusion on the album. The best bonus track is Chuck Willis’ “What Am I Living For” with just guitar, organ and vocals. I may not return to this album as much as the others, but I found a lot to like here.
Two years later, Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975) was considered a return to form by critics & fans. They’re still “The Band,” but they added some contemporary touches that make them sound more like other artists of that era, as opposed to the timeless sound of their first few albums. This is not a criticism, since it’s good to see them evolving. A large part of the change had to do with Robbie Robertson’s move to California, where he set up a 24-track studio that gave the band many more options regarding their sound. The album opens with “Forbidden Fruit.” We’ve heard this sound from them before, but it’s a solid track with a cool guitar solo. “Hobo Jungle” is a pretty ballad with Manuel’s typically strong vocals. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily blend well with the music, but I still enjoyed this song. “Ophelia” is a good upbeat horn-punctuated song with Helm on vocals, which is followed by the album’s centerpiece, “Acadian Driftwood.” This song is as good as anything in their catalog. The wind instruments at the beginning recall Manfred Mann’s version of the Bob Dylan song “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo).” I also believe this is their longest song, at around 6:40, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. All three singers share vocal duties and sound fantastic, as always.
Danko’s bass playing, along with added percussion, horns & synths, really drives the funky groove of “Ring Your Bell.” The other major standout track is “It Makes No Difference,” with Danko delivering powerful, passionate vocals. It’s a sad but beautiful love song with truly heartbreaking lyrics that could’ve been a country smash hit for someone like George Jones. It’s interesting how the title of the song appears in the verses, while the catchy choruses feature lines like “…and the sun don’t shine anymore.” The harmonies on this are amazing, and there’s a beautiful instrumental coda for the last 1-1/2 minutes featuring guitar and sax. “Jupiter Hollow” is the most modern sounding song on the album. The steady drum machine and synths mimicking horns make this sound like a Doobie Brothers song (from the Michael McDonald era). Once again, the song title appears in the verses, while the chorus makes it sound like the title should be “Living In Another World.” The album ends with “Rags & Bones,” a story song with Robertson possibly reliving something from his youth. I wouldn’t call this a classic album, as some critics have, but it showed that The Band were still a vital musical force, and includes at least two songs that are no-brainers for inclusion on any Band compilation.
Although they stopped touring in 1976, as documented on The Last Waltz (to be revisited here soon), they still had a contractual obligation to their record company to release another album. Instead of heading into the studio to work on new material, they finished up some works in progress for Islands (1977). This would be the last studio album released by the original quintet. Obviously they had reached the end of their lifespan as a group, and perhaps the album title was meant to indicate that they were now five individuals instead of a collective. I never noticed until recently that silhouettes of their profiles frame the tranquil sunset depicted on the album cover.
Considering the conditions under which this album was pieced together, it holds up pretty well. Album opener “Right As Rain” is a pleasant song that sounds a bit like Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” (released that same year). I could hear the late-70’s Beach Boys recording this with Dennis Wilson on vocals. “Streetwalker” was co-written by Robertson and Danko (who sings it), and includes horns that have a Tom Scott & The L.A. Express/Steely Dan sound. I noticed how they’re sounding more like other artists by this point in their career, something that makes this album less distinctive than any of its predecessors. The cover song “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” has been recorded by many artists (like Sam & Dave, Taj Mahal, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Simply Red). It’s an excellent song & Helm does a nice job on vocals.
It’s a little strange that they stuck a Christmas song (“Christmas Must Be Tonight”) in the middle of the album, especially since it’s such an excellent one. Although the lyrics are almost sacred, this is not a traditional Christmas tune, but it has a lovely melody (especially in the choruses) that would’ve worked just as well on a non-holiday song. There’s some great fiddle playing on the instrumental “Islands,” with a drum machine providing the mid-tempo metronomic groove. I’m not sure what “The Saga Of Pepote Rouge” is about, but I can’t stop listening to its fun, catchy melody. It’s like a short story or a movie, yet we don’t quite get to know the character or the narrator. Manuel delivers another amazing vocal performance on the Ray Charles classic “Georgia On My Mind,” doing Brother Ray proud. The subtle instrumentation really puts a spotlight on the singer & the song, and they both shine brightly. Apparently that’s a rare Robertson lead vocal (with assistance from Helm), singing about the Depression era, on the loose & surprisingly fun “Knockin’ Lost John,” a country shuffle with accordion coming & going throughout. The last song on their last album was “Living In A Dream.” It’s got a good melody, strong lead vocals by Helm, a steady beat & nice harmonies. Perhaps this could’ve fit on Music From Big Pink. The CD also has the single-only song “Twilight,” a minor song with strong Danko vocals and a slight reggae feel. There are enough quality songs here to make this worth listening to, but it’s still a relatively minor entry in their catalog.
Other than The Basement Tapes (with Bob Dylan) and the all-star farewell live concert recording, The Last Waltz, both of which I will discuss here soon, I have two other CDs by The Band: Jericho (1993) and Live At Watkins Glen (1995).
The former was the first studio release by the three surviving members (after Richard Manuel died in 1986), without Robbie Robertson. Since it’s missing Robertson’s songwriting, they chose covers by artists like Bruce Springsteen, Jules Shear, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and several others. It’s a solid album that doesn’t soil their legacy, but when listening to it immediately after the original albums it pales in comparison. “Country Boy” is the only song that features Manuel on vocals, obviously recorded several years earlier. After years of fighting various addictions, his voice is less assured & rougher around the edges. “Same Thing” has an off-kilter groove that grabbed my attention. This possibly could have fit on Islands. The album closes on a strong note with the slow blues of “Blues Stay Away From Me.” Otherwise, it’s nothing more than a nice album with two of the three voices from the original group, and should be listened to separately from the rest of their albums.
Live At Watkins Glen was supposedly recorded at a concert in 1973, where they performed along with The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead, but other than a spoken introduction by concert promoter Bill Graham and two “songs” (the keyboard instrumental “Too Wet To Work” and “Jam”), the rest were actually studio recordings with audience noise added to make it sound like a live recording. For a fraudulent release it’s actually not a bad listen, but most of the songs can be found elsewhere in their original studio format.
I’m looking forward to revisiting The Basement Tapes and The Last Waltz box set next, to wrap up a very enjoyable trip through The Band’s music. Thanks for reading, and I invite you to share your thoughts in the Comments section.