Flash back to the late 1950s when Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson came together in backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. As The Hawks ,they honed their chops on the Canadian-American borderland before stepping out on their own as Levon and the Hawks or The Canadian Squires. Bob Dylan had the good sense to catch them as they flew and hired them to back him on tours of America and Europe in 1965 and 1966, an episode that altered musical history for the likes of George Harrison and Jerry Garcia. They made The Basement Tapes as a result and while those songs would sit in various cans, or be bootlegged and loaned out to prospective hit-makers like Manfred Mann, the Band boys decided to create their own Music from Big Pink in 1968 and adopt the permanent title of The Band, simply because they were the go-go band for various front men. The Pink album was a revelation and a revolution wrapped into one. One of the most inspiring new sounding discs even by 1960s standards it contains the epic cuts that they wrote around Dylan: ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ and ‘Tears of Rage’. Equally notable, however are the songs that keyboards genius Richard Manuel bosses –‘Chest Fever’ and ‘In A Station’, or those where drummer Levon Helm takes vocal control –‘The Weight’ being the most stellar of all. With Robertson’s song writing matching itself to the sonic tapestry, we also have the cover of ‘Long Black Veil’ to consider and the bonus material on the re-master. This is simply one of the most classic items about. To discover it is bliss. To gaze at the cover more of same – Dylan painted it.
Producer John Simon became like the sixth member once the self-titled The Band arrived in 1969, adding his barrage of horns to an ever-expanding dynamic which saw every member now proficient on a bewildering array of instruments. Another uncanny mélange of southern and roots rock and roll, this is virtually a conceptual piece illuminated by the classics, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’ and ‘Jawbone’. Robertson’s songs were now sharper than ever, his guitar playing so fluid and transcendental that everyone from Zeppelin to Pink Floyd stood slack mouthed. No wonder, it’s another five star plus masterpiece they’ve painted here.
The turn of the decade finds us marvelling at Stage Fright, recorded in Woodstock with young engineer Todd Rundgren. A more straightforwardly rocking beauty than hitherto it nevertheless boasts signature pieces like ‘The Shape I’m in’ and the marvellous imagery of ‘Sleeping’, a late Manuel composition. Cahoots from 1971 is somewhat overlooked, which gives us greater reason to point out its many virtues today. This is where Dylan’s ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ occurs, while ‘Life Is a Carnival’ and the Van Morrison collaboration ‘4% Pantomime’ add gravitas and harmonized glory. As usual this is also available in the Robertson-overseen extended version with bonus-unreleased songs and alternate takes.
To accentuate the positive and hammer home the obvious, The Band were a magnificent live proposition and Rock of Ages: The Band in Concert (also 1971) was recorded at the Academy of Music in New York City to prove that boast in full across a lavish double album set. With New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint providing the horn arrangements, this functions as an evocation of the title – a fantastically far reaching account of American black and white music and every shade between. The Band’s soul roots are tipped at the hat thrown towards ‘Don’t Do It’ (a hit for Marvin Gaye) while Hudson’s ‘The Genetic Method’ points to a new fusion in music that was way beyond the ken of lesser mortals. The bonus material includes sundry Basement Tapes gems like ‘Don’t Ya Tell Henry’– as light hearted and gloriously slipshod as anything in Dylan’s canon, and a spine tingling take on the Stevie Wonder pop evergreen ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’. This album had an enormous impact on the British roots and pub rock scene and now sounds better than ever.
Moondog Matinee is a watershed moment for the music and for The Band’s internal situation. Undoubtedly recorded at a time of great pressure and tension the friction one hears in their covers of R&B numbers like Toussaint’s ‘Holy Cow’ and the Presley standard ‘Mystery Train’ only add extra frisson. If you love a band, let alone The Band, you want to hear them at times of stress as well as during moments of equilibrium. Following the Dylan linked live album Before the Flood and the eventual release of The Basement Tapes we arrive at the revitalized apex that is Northern Lights – Southern Cross, since here Robertson bosses the entire project in terms of composition. The standout ‘Acadian Driftwood’ (later covered by The Roches) is a scintillating war song about the indigenous people of Nova Scotia down to Maine and benefits from the fiddle expertise of Byron Berline.
Islands (1977) is the final album, sadly, featuring the original line up, but is nevertheless an intriguing collection of songs that never quite made it to the mainland of their previous catalogue. So here you get the strutting ‘Street Walker’ and a spirited assault on the bluesy ‘Ain't That a Lot of Love’’ and a well realized attempt to update the standard ‘Georgia On My Mind’.
Seventeen years after their farewell concert, The Band will re-emerge with Jericho, chased down by High on The Hog and Jubilation, a fine trio indeed. But our real interest lies in a host of other sets. Firstly, the gold selling Music from Big Pink is teamed with the platinum masterpiece The Band as a double offering. Anthology and box set lovers are well catered for. The Best of The Band, Anthology and To Kingdom Come: The Definitive Collection are increasingly adventurous sets of the tried and trusted. Across the Great Divide is a 3-CD set that features many rarities and has itself been usurped by A Musical History (5-CD and I-DVD) that spans highlights from the magnificent seven opening albums and includes nearly 40 superb rarities. With early singles from the Ronnie Hawkins period leading off this chronological master class in Americana, there are outtakes with Dylan and a final live collection on DVD recorded at Wembley Stadium (1974), Academy of Music (1971) and other locales such as Robertson’s home studio.
This is an extraordinarily evocative and career defining package and is a fine place to end up at once the original albums have been appreciated in order.
Books, films and tributes abound about The Band, but the best place to discover them is right here – you’ll be tickled Big Pink. What an adventure lies ahead.
Words: Max Bell
The Band is the eponymous second studio album by The Band, released on September 22, 1969. It is also known as The Brown Album. According to Rob Bowman's liner notes for the 2000 reissue, The Band has been viewed as a concept album, with the songs focusing on people, places and traditions associated with an older version of Americana. Thus, the songs on this album draw from historic themes for "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" and Richard Manuel's "Jawbone" (which was composed in the unusual 6/4 time signature.)
Music from Big Pink is the debut studio album by The Band. Released in 1968, it employs a distinctive blend of country, rock,folk, classical, R&B, and soul. The music was composed partly in "Big Pink", a house shared by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel andGarth Hudson in West Saugerties, New York. The album itself was recorded in studios in New York and Los Angeles in 1968, and followed the band's backing of Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour (as The Hawks) and time spent together in upstate New York recording material that was officially released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes, also with Dylan.
Rock of Ages: The Band in Concert is a live album by The Band, released in 1972 on Capitol Records, catalogue SABB 11045. It was compiled from recordings made during their series of shows at the Academy of Music in New York City, from December 28 through 31, 1971. It peaked at #6 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Northern Lights – Southern Cross is the sixth studio album by Canadian-American rock group The Band released in 1975. It was the first album to be recorded at their new California studio, Shangri-La, and the first album of all new material since 1971's Cahoots.
Stage Fright is the third studio album by Canadian-American group The Band released in 1970. Much more of a rock album than its predecessors, it was a departure from their previous two efforts in that its tone was darker and featured less of the harmony vocal blend that had been a centerpiece of those two albums. It also included the last two recordings by The Band of new songs credited to pianist Richard Manuel; both were co-written with guitarist Robbie Robertson, who would continue to be the group's dominant lyricist until the group disbanded in 1976. Nonetheless, the tradition of switching instruments that had begun on the previous album continued here, with each musician contributing instrumental parts on at least two different instruments.
Engineered by an up-and-coming Todd Rundgren, and produced by the group themselves for the first time, the album was recorded at the Woodstock Playhouse in their homebase of Woodstock, New York. The album featured an insert which became popular as a fold-out poster. The insert image was shot by photographer Norman Seeff.
Two different mixes of the album were prepared, one in the US by Rundgren and one in the UK by Glyn Johns. The Johns mix was selected for the original LP release and all subsequent reissues on Capitol (including the expanded 2000 remaster), while Rundgren's mix was eventually released on a 24k gold CD reissue of the album by the DCC Compact Classics label in 1994.
Moondog Matinee is the fifth studio album by Canadian/American rock group The Band released in 1973. It consists entirely of cover material taken from the group's love of R&B and blues music, with one exception in their interpretation of the theme from the film The Third Man.
In a 2002 interview, Levon Helm described the reasoning for recording an album of covers: "That was all we could do at the time. We couldn't get along—we all knew that fairness was a bunch of shit. We all knew we were getting screwed, so we couldn't sit down and create no more music. 'Up on Cripple Creek' and all that stuff was over—all that collaboration was over, and that type of song was all we could do."
The original idea had been to replicate the group's setlists of the mid-'60s when they had been known as Levon and the Hawks, playing clubs throughout Canada and the US. Of the ten tracks, only one, "Share Your Love (With Me)" had been performed by the group in the mid-'60s. The rest were merely tracks the group admired, two of them, "Holy Cow" and "A Change Is Gonna Come", chronologically coming after the group's club days.