Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Between June and October 1967, Bob Dylan and The Band wrote & recorded dozens of songs in a home in West Saugerties, New York that was known as “Big Pink” (as in The Band’s debut album, Music From Big Pink). A number of these songs initially saw the light of day in 1969 on the unauthorized Bob Dylan record Great White Wonder, often cited as the first-ever bootleg album. Although not all of the songs on this bootleg were from the sessions with The Band, those are the ones that gained notoriety among fans and fellow musicians, and sealed the reputations of Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson.
When Columbia released the 2-LP The Basement Tapes (1975), Dylan was experiencing a career resurgence with Blood On The Tracks (released earlier that year), while The Band was less than a year away from its big farewell. I’ve listened to The Basement Tapes a number of times over the years, and it always sounded like a collection of half-finished sketches, joke songs and throwaways. I’ve been a pretty big Dylan fan for a number of years (although I hope to revisit his voluminous catalog here in the future, as there are many albums I don’t know very well), so I always listened to this album more as a Dylan fan. Now that I’m much more familiar with The Band’s catalog and their individual contributions (vocally and instrumentally), I was able to enjoy it on a whole new level.
There are a couple of disclaimers about this album that I wasn’t previously aware of. First, Dylan is only on 16 of the 24 songs included. Also, there’s some dispute about the recording locations and dates. Apparently, some of the songs were recorded solely by The Band a year or two after the Dylan sessions, and some overdubs were added to existing recordings in 1975. While this makes The Basement Tapes less authentic to a purist, it still holds up really well…but it does come across more as a collection of songs than a cohesive album. I could go on to list things I like about almost every song, but instead I’ll just mention some of the highlights.
“Odds And Ends,” the first track, sounds like a loose tossed-off jam with a catchy chorus. It could also be a statement of intent for the hodgepodge nature of the album. “Million Dollar Bash” and “Lo And Behold!” would also fall into the category of loose & fun Dylan songs. I really like the way Danko & Manuel support Dylan during the choruses on these two. “Yazoo Street Scandal” is an anomaly, not sounding like anything by either of these artists. In fact it reminds me of some of the more experimental songs Paul McCartney recorded for his early solo albums, where his voice and instruments sounded slightly distorted. It took me a few listens to figure out it was Helm singing here.
A song that could’ve easily fit on The Band’s early albums is “Katie’s Been Gone,” featuring Manuel and Danko on harmonized lead vocals. This is one of the highlights of the album for me. I like “Bessie Smith,” but it sounds like it was recorded in the ‘70s (around Stage Fright or Cahoots), so sonically it doesn’t fit with most of the other songs here. The version of “Tears Of Rage,” with Dylan on vocals, didn’t have the same impact on me as the version from The Band’s debut album. It’s still a powerful song, but Manuel’s vocals added a special element that’s missing here. I enjoyed the weird and offbeat “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread.” I have no idea what they’re singing about, but the chorus seeped into my brain on repeated listening, as did the neat little piano melody throughout the verses.
The old prison work song, “Ain’t No More Cane,” is a truly great Band song, with each vocalist (even Robertson) contributing a verse. Dylan wrote “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” although he’s not on the version here. It sounds like it was tailor-made for Helm’s twangy vocals. Another future Band song that doesn’t come across as powerfully with Dylan on vocals is “This Wheel’s On Fire.” I’d rather listen to the version from Music From Big Pink, but this is still a good way to close out this album. A few other standout tracks were “Please Mrs. Henry,” “Apple Suckling Tree,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (later recorded by The Byrds) and “Nothing Was Delivered.” I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Basement Tapes after finally spending some time with it. I will revisit this album frequently in the future.
In 1976, The Band decided to stop touring (although based on some of the things I’ve read, this was more Robertson’s decision, which might indicate why the other members went back out on the road together in the early-80s). Instead of quietly fading into music history, Robertson collaborated with director Martin Scorsese to film their last concert, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, on Thanksgiving that year, and invited a number of talented guests to play with them. The resulting movie and soundtrack, The Last Waltz (1978), became both a historical document and an epitaph for a great band.
The original soundtrack album was a 3-record set, and it was eventually released on 2 CDs sometime in the late 1980’s. That’s the version I owned until Warner Bros./Rhino Records released a 4-CD box set version in 2002, which included over 20 previously unreleased recordings. In addition to well-executed Band classics like “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” “The Weight,” “Stagefright” and “Acadian Driftwood,” they also acted as the house band for such diverse performers as their old leader, Ronnie Hawkins (a playful rendition of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”), Joni Mitchell (including some jazzy material, like “Shadows And Light”), Neil Young (sympathetic accompaniment on “Helpless” and “Four Strong Winds”), Van Morrison (an old traditional Irish song, as well as his own “Caravan”), Muddy Waters (the authentic blues of “Mannish Boy”), Emmylou Harris (the exquisite “Evangeline,” recorded not at the concert but on a soundstage at a later date), Bob Dylan (of course, and sounding strong on his five numbers), and several others. If nothing else, The Band proves that they can play almost anything, with the possible exception of jam-band improvisation (based on the previously unreleased “Jam #1” and “Jam #2,” which both go nowhere).
I re-watched the movie a couple of days ago, and although it doesn’t include all of the performances from that night, for the most part they chose wisely. It’s very clear after watching it again that Robertson was in complete control, to the point where he obviously set himself up to be the star of the film. Sure, Helm and Danko get a lot of screen time, but Robertson seems to be highlighted more than the others. By this point, Manuel’s addictions had rendered him a shell of what he once was, so even though he sounds pretty good on his featured songs (“The Shape I’m In” and the duet with Van Morrison, especially), his ghostly visage remains mostly hidden in the background. Even Hudson, who contributes such amazing keyboard work, is mostly seen in the background or in silhouette. The newly written instrumental “Theme From The Last Waltz” is a touching end to the film, and the original album.
Over the years, The Last Waltz has gained a reputation as The Band’s definitive live album. This was an extra special night, and I’m glad it was filmed & recorded, but like the earlier live album Rock Of Ages, it doesn’t represent just the five original members on stage. This is a minor quibble, and every music fan should hear (or see) it at least once, just to understand the breadth of their abilities as musicians, singers, songwriters and accompanists.
Honorable mention should go to Before The Flood (1974), a 2-record live album documenting Bob Dylan and The Band on their 1974 tour. The sound quality is very good for its time, and the song selection leans more heavily toward Dylan but still features enough Band performances to make this a satisfying release for fans of both artists. Although I keep this CD with my Dylan collection, I decided to listen to it during my re-discovery of The Band, so I included it here. I’ve chosen to skip their 1974 studio collaboration, Planet Waves, as that was released as a Bob Dylan album. I’ll revisit it whenever I get around to tackling his catalog.
In conclusion, I’ve written so much about The Band these past few weeks, and there’s not much to add here. Revisiting their catalog has been such a revelation for me. I started out enjoying their music, and now I’m not just a fan…I LOVE this band. One day I may seek out the Complete Basement Tapes 5-CD bootleg, but for now I’m incredibly happy that I got to know their music so much better than I did before. These plastic discs in my collection are now alive with music that will continue to inspire me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Thanks for joining me on my continuing journey of re-discovery. Now it’s time to move on to my next artist. Check back soon.