Having spent years on the club circuit backing Ronnie Hawkins and then famously supporting Bob Dylan when he decided to “go electric,” The Band were an experienced unit who knew exactly what they wanted when they cut Music From Big Pink. When this influential album appeared in 1968 it sounded completely unlike anything else around, as its concise, earthy music flew directly in the face of the overblown psychedelia that dominated the day. The Band drew their musical inspiration from various musical sources (rockabilly, ragtime, r&b, blues, country, folk; you name it), and wove them into a seamless rock sound that was completely American (despite The Band being comprised of four Canadians) and uniquely their own. Suffice it to say that they were perhaps the ultimate band, with five virtuoso musicians (including four multi-instrumentalists) and three great rock singers (Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko), each of whom had a distinct voice that perfectly fit into their ragged harmonies. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, who would become the group’s dominant songwriter, wrote only four of the selections here, as each member shares in the creative process. Manuel also had a hand in writing four songs, and his direct lyrics are a nice contrast to Robertson’s more oblique storytelling style, which is heard to excellent effect on “The Weight.” Memorably featured in the movie Easy Rider, “The Weight” is a great showcase for Helm’s deadened drum sound and their inventive vocal arrangements, and most of the other songs here are also brilliantly soulful and singable, if not overly exciting. Highlights include the heartbreaking “Tears of Rage” (co-written with Bob Dylan, who also painted the album's cover), the organ heavy “Chest Fever ” (showcasing the amazing Garth Hudson), and a sublime rendering of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” which features a gut wrenching falsetto vocal performance by Manuel. Named after the big pink house in Woodstock where most of these songs were birthed (and where they had earlier cut The Basement Tapes with Dylan), this is timeless music that could’ve been recorded yesterday or 100 years ago, and it’ll sound just as good 100 years from now.
The Band (Capitol ’69, '00) Rating: A+
In its own loose limbed, low-key way, Music From Big Pink was as revolutionary as Sgt. Peppers in the way that it inspired musicians to rediscover their roots. Fine though their debut was, their self-titled second album (so named to end any possible confusion about the band’s actual name) upped the stakes another notch. Rightfully regarded as The Band’s masterpiece, its songs once again sounded of no specific time or place, but instead brought to mind an invigorating integration of old, forgotten backwoods sounds that, when woven together by the joyful spirit of a brilliant band, evoked the essence of everything American. Robertson’s songwriting flourishes (he wrote or co-wrote all twelve songs), and the songs are even stronger and more varied this time out. Each song has its own distinct flavor, too, and one look at the credits (Garth Hudson alone plays organ, clavinette, piano, accordion, soprano, tenor/baritone sax, and slide trumpet) reveals a diverse range of instrumentation. “Across The Great Divide,” “When You Awake,” and “Up On Cripple Creek” are among The Band’s catchiest songs, while “Rag Mama Rag” and “King Harvest” lock into great grooves that show off their skillful instrumental interplay. Some of The Band’s finest lead vocal performances can also be found here: Helm’s impassioned Southern singing shines on the classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Manuel’s lovely falsetto performance on “Whispering Pines” can actually induce chills, and Rick Danko’s world weary lead makes “Unfaithful Servant” an especially affecting ballad. However, it’s their tag team harmonies that provide their signature sound, adding a wistful flavor to “Rockin’ Chair” and enlivening energetic rockers such as “Jemima Surrender” and “Look Out Cleveland.” In addition to his songwriting chores, Robertson’s guitar playing is also more prominent on this album, though his minimalist style still serves to prove that less is often more. In short, everything came together just right on this astonishingly rich album, which remains a classic of late '60s rock music.
Stage Fright (Capitol ’70, '00) Rating: A-
Though not quite as fresh or consistent as Music From Big Pink or The Band, time has only been kind to Stage Fright, which was widely perceived as a disappointment upon its release. Stage Fright can be seen as the band’s reaction to fame and fortune and all its attendant excesses (primarily drugs), and as a result the album sounds slightly world weary and features a darker hued perspective. This altered view is perhaps best evidenced on the propulsive concert staple “The Shape I’m In” and the autobiographical title track, which refers to Robertson’s well known ordeal before his first stage appearance with The Band, when he had to be hypnotized in order to go onstage. This song demonstrates how much more personal and direct Robertson’s lyrics are on this album, on which he received almost no songwriting help, as the communal spirit of togetherness that had existed at Big Pink seemed but a distant memory. According to Helm's autobiography, this was allegedly due to resentment over the excessive songwriting credits that Robertson had received on their first two albums, though it should be noted that I've never heard any of his Band mates back him up on this. Anyway, “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” is steeped in The Band’s vintage Americana, and “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” features a lazy melody along with their trademark harmony vocals, which unfortunately appear with far less frequency throughout this album. “Time To Kill” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” are other catchy rockers with that unique Band flavor, while the accordion-enhanced “All La Glory” and “The Rumor,” on which all three singers shine, are both pretty ballads. The former song is about Robbie’s first born daughter, while the latter ends this darkly pessimistic album on a rare optimistic note: “it’s a coming, a brand new day.” Alas, such optimism would prove to be unfounded.
Cahoots (Capitol ’71, ’00) Rating: B+
By the time of Cahoots, being in The Band had become a job, but in retrospect this much-maligned album contains quite a few strong songs. For example, the album starts off with “Life Is A Carnival,” an uplifting rocker that’s boosted by Allen Toussaint’s typically brilliant horn arrangements, while Levon Helm’s vocal for the ages makes their version of Bob Dylan’s newly written “When I Paint My Masterpiece” one of the best Dylan covers ever. The strange “Last of the Blacksmiths” is notable for what Robertson refers to as Hudson’s “elephant cry horns,” and for again demonstrating how The Band (and in particular Hudson) were always searching for, and usually finding, brand new sounds. The Band themselves were none too pleased with “Where Do We Go From Here?,” but they were being way too hard on themselves, as it’s another catchy sing along that segues nicely into the spontaneous Van Morrison/Richard Manuel duet “4% Pantomine,” a fine showcase for two superior singers. Sure, some of the album’s second half sounds either tired or uninspired, but “The Moon Struck One” is another excellent example of Robertson’s cinematic storytelling skills, while “The River Hymn” ends the album on a hymn-like high. No, Cahoots isn’t their best album, and its completion left The Band completely exhausted; it would be four long years before they would release another album of newly penned material. However, fans of Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright would do well to continue investigating The Band with the often underrated Cahoots.
Rock Of Ages (Capitol ‘72, '01) Rating: A-
The Band were never the most exciting band around, but they always had that certain something special, namely a remarkably rich and soulful sound. If any Band album can be said to be genuinely exciting it would have to be this live classic, which runs through 28 songs (on the much expanded and highly recommended Deluxe Edition) over two discs and provides an excellent overview of the group’s songbook to date. Often augmented by an ace 5-piece horn section brilliantly arranged by New Orleans’ incomparable Allen Toussaint, the group themselves are “on” as well, with tight performances that showcase their superior musicianship, incredible vocal talent, and catchy songs supplied almost exclusively by Robertson, whose guitar presence has predictably increased. Hudson’s role has as well, perhaps too much so at times (I like his extended solo piece “The Genetic Method” well enough, but its indulgences seem at odds with the minimalism that has always been their calling card), while Levon’s flat drum beats anchor a lively batch of tunes that mostly concentrate on The Band’s more upbeat, funky side. A few songs make their introductory appearance on a Band album, none more forcefully than their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don't Do It,” an incendiary performance on which they easily claim the song as their own. Less impressive are “Get Up Jake,” a catchy enough b-side but no highlight (though I’m partial to it since my oldest son’s name is Jake) and their rollicking yet unremarkable cover of Bob Willis’ “(I Don't Want To) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes.” The reissue (which packs the original 18 songs onto one disc and adds another 10 to the second) goes several steps better with another fine Motown reworking (The Four Tops' "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever"), several songs that probably should've made the cut the first time around ("I Shall Be Released," "The Rumor," "Rockin' Chair") among a couple of disappointing attempts ("Up On Cripple Creek," "Time To Kill"), and four songs ("Down In The Flood," "When I Paint My Masterpiece," "Don't Ya Tell Henry," "Like a Rolling Stone”) with Bob Dylan that make up for in passion whatever they lack in precision (at times they lack plenty, alas, though it's pretty funny how Bob can't remember the words to his own songs!). Anyway, perhaps some of these versions don't stray too far from their studio counterparts, but the horns often add depth and color, while a pumped up crowd (it didn't hurt that part of this album was recorded on New Year's Eve) adds to the overall excitement. True, there will always be those (less enlightened - wink wink) who feel that these guys are a little too stiff and academic or perhaps a tad too "hicky," but for those who might question why critics and musicians alike have long revered this great band, the answer lies within these two wonderful discs.
Moondog Matinee (Capitol ‘73, '01) Rating: B
Something of a stopgap collection while Robbie Robertson readied his next batch of songs (sadly, the other band members had ceased to write entirely), Moondog Matinee is an entertaining if inessential album of cover songs. Taking on songs written (or popularized) by Clarence "Frogman" Henry ("Ain't Got No Home"), Allen Toussaint ("Holy Cow"), Bobby "Blue" Bland ("Share Your Love With Me"), Elvis Presley ("Mystery Train"), Chuck Berry ("The Promised Land"), The Platters ("The Great Pretender"), Fats Domino ("I'm Ready"), LaVern Baker ("Saved"), and Sam Cooke ("A Change Is Gonna Come"), The Band sound completely at home as they tackle these rock n' roll (as opposed to rock; there is a difference) and r&b-based "oldies." And though I wouldn't say they improve on the originals as a general rule, this is most definitely a worthwhile exercise, as The Band respectfully pay homage to music that obviously meant a lot to them. Their take on "Mystery Train" is certainly exemplary, as The Band really hit on a good groove on this one. Helm and Hudson (who sounds like he's been listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder) especially shine, while Manuel steals the show on "Share Your Love With Me," a supremely soulful ballad. Richard always was The Band's most affecting singer, while Helm was their most authoritative, and as such it makes sense that he sings the album's more rollicking numbers ("Ain't Got No Home," "The Promised Land," "I'm Ready," and "Mystery Train"). The first three are probably my least favorite songs on the album, actually; certainly the silly chorus somewhat mars "Ain't Got No Home" (only Van Morrison can get away with such wordless gibberish), and the other two, while well performed, are simply of a style I prefer less. "Saved" is only average as well, while we're at it, and though their version of "The Great Pretender" is classy enough, that's just one of those songs that I think should be left alone (I'm a BIG Platters fan, though their classic era falls outside the scope - 1960 > present - of this site). Perhaps The Band's most versatile and steadiest singer (if their least distinctive), Danko does a good job on Toussaint's sing songy "Holy Cow," which sounds like it could've been written by Randy Newman, and he puts in a terrific performance on Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," which is probably the album's other standout track alongside "Share Your Love With Me" and "Mystery Train." In the middle of all this is the waltz-like instrumental "Third Man Theme," which provides a nice break in the action and shows that the group put some thought into how they wanted to conceive this album. Truth is, there aren't too many all covers albums that I would recommend above this one (not that I can think of many good "all covers" albums, period), on which The Band pay tribute to their forbears, and, helped by a solid and adventurous-enough song selection, pulled off a fine Band album in the process. Additionally, like all of the Capitol reissues this one is excellent, with a much improved sound, well-written and informative liner notes, and bonus tracks (six in this case) that are actually generally a bonus.
Northern Lights-Southern Cross (Capitol ‘75 '01) Rating: A-
The Band's first album of all new material in four years (no big deal today but an eternity back then) is something of a "lost" minor classic, and I'm tempted to agree with Rob Bowman (who penned the liner notes on all The Band's reissues) when he calls this their "finest effort since their second album." After Moondog Matinee, The Band moved out West to Malibu and set up their Shangri-La studio, where they briefly rediscovered the clubhouse spirit and camaraderie that had always yielded their best work. They also recorded Planet Waves and went on a successful tour with Bob Dylan (captured on Before The Flood), so they were sharp and ready to go when Robbie Robertson presented them with eight new songs. "Forbidden Fruit" is one of several upbeat compositions, and like most of the songs here this one (likely an autobiographical account of the band's drug problems) features an extended running time (5:59) and some excellent guitar from Robertson, who solos far more extensively (albeit always with taste and economy and within the service of the song) than on past albums. The other upbeat, funky songs are "Ophelia," a catchy, funky New Orleans-influenced number that's a lot of fun, "Ring Your Bell," a slight but enjoyable sing along that exemplifies the traded off vocal style that reappears throughout this album (for some reason The Band had gotten away from that in recent years), and "Jupiter Hollow," an overly synthesized yet creative piece which features an early use of a drum machine and Robbie on clavinet (meaning that they did have five multi-instrumentalists after all). I find "Hobo Jungle" a bit boring despite a typically fine Manuel vocal, and "Rags & Bones" seems to end the album somewhat anti-climatically despite more stellar guitar from Robbie (I guess this is his "guitar hero" album, if you will), but "Acadian Driftwood" and "It Makes No Difference" are stone-cold classics that rank among The Band's very best songs. The former is musically lush and features evocative harmonies, while also capturing a Cajun feel and lyrics that show off Robertson's unique storytelling style, while the latter arguably features Rick Danko's best vocal (it's either this or "Unfaithful Servant") along with choice guitar from Robertson (again) and tasty sax work from Hudson. These leisurely paced, epic length (each eclipsing 6 and a half minutes) tracks form the heart of Northern Lights - Southern Cross, which, in his typically immodest way, Robertson called "an adventurous and modernistic leap." Alas, for whatever reason the album didn't fare well commercially and (more surprisingly) received mixed reviews, and perhaps the album's poor reception pointed the way to The Band's subsequent breakup. After a poorly received "contractual obligation" album, Islands, The Band signed with Warner Brothers, where they delivered a more fitting farewell.
The Last Waltz (Warner Bros. ‘78, '02) Rating: A-
Considering the cast, this was bound to be an enjoyable showcase, though it’s somewhat overrated (and if you read Levon Helm’s autobiography, not quite the love fest it’s been glamorized as being) since The Band sounds tired. They give it their all, though, and this is still an essential album because of the many guests who were invited for this concert, which sent The Band off in grand style (it was their last concert with all the original band members). Collaborations such as Joni Mitchell harmonizing behind Neil Young on “Helpless,” Paul Butterfield backing Muddy Waters on “Mannish Boy,” Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson trading guitar bursts on “Further On Up The Road,” Richard Manuel and Van Morrison duetting on “Tura-Lura-Lural (That’s An Irish Lullaby),” and a Bob Dylan medley (“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Forever Young,” “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” and “I Shall Be Released”) on which everybody chimes in come chorus time alone make this worth the price of admission. Allen Toussaint provides his usual high quality horn arrangements, and the likes of John Simon, Ringo Starr, and Ron Wood also provide low-key musical accompaniment. Some of these versions are flat-out fantastic (Van The Man’s “Caravan,” The Band’s own “It Makes No Difference” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), but on the down side, the new studio material is decent but won’t make you question their decision to call it a day, and I can certainly do without Ronnie Hawkins’ “Who Do You Love” and Neil Diamond’s “Dry Your Eyes.” Though most of these songs are superior in their studio incarnations, Emmylou Harris' backing vocals greatly enhance “Evangeline,” while The Staple Singers add a gospel flavor to a terrific rendition of “The Weight.” The Last Waltz was also made into a successful movie directed by the great Martin Scorcesee (in fact, many feel that it's the best rock movie ever made), giving it a legendary status as a once in a lifetime kind of event. Note: The album was reissued and expanded by 24 tracks in 2002. Additional notes: Robbie Robertson broke up The Band (much to the chagrin of Helm, who has not been shy about voicing his bitterness towards Robertson) to embark on an interesting if unprolific solo career. The Band later regrouped minus Robertson and Manuel (who tragically killed himself in 1986), but I've yet to hear any of their '90s albums (Jericho, High On The Hog, and Jubilation), though I did see The Band at the travesty that was Woodstock '94. On a personal note, I went to college with the son of Rick Danko (who died in 1999). Sadly, like Moon, Bonzo, and Bon before him, Eli Danko drank too much one night and never woke up.
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