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The Band

Not many popular rock outfits could successfully straddle the boundaries between folk and country music – and then there was The BAND.
Formed in Toronto, Ontario in 1967 by close-knit Canadians (except their Arkansas-born drummer) Robbie Robertson (guitar), Rick Danko (bass, fiddle and vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, drums and vocals), Levon Helm (drums, mandolin and vocals) and Garth Hudson (keyboards and sax), one can trace the… er… band back to 1958, when each in turn (through to 1963) joined up with Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who had been promoted as the heir to ELVIS; the group on their own cut records under the name of Canadian Squires and later Levon & The Hawks.
Having worked alongside Arkansas blues legend SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON in ’64, the Hawks were subsequently introduced (by young record producer, John Hammond Jr.) to BOB DYLAN on his 1965/66 world tour; Helm left the bard after the infamous Forest Hills concert (28th August 1965) where the folk messiah had been booed once again. Following DYLAN’s motorcycle accident in 1966 and subsequent seclusion at Woodstock, the group also relocated to the area, Helm re-joining them. They then began work on a series of laid-back, informal sessions with DYLAN which would see the light of day several years later. A seminal set of experimental proto-country-folk, the legendary “Basement Tapes” (double album) sessions saw the group developing the distinctive instrumental, vocal and songwriting dexterity which would mark them out as musicians in their own right. Under the plaintive moniker of The BAND, the quintet signed with Dylan manager Albert Grossman, which led to a deal with Capitol Records.
MUSIC FROM BIG PINK (1968) {*8} slowly and surely became one of the pivotal debut releases of the decade. Named after the group’s communal Woodstock home, it stood alongside The BYRDS’ `Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ and DYLAN’s `John Wesley Harding’ as a quietly confident display of back to basics musical integrity and an antidote to the psychedelic excesses of the previous year. The record highlighted the vocal diversity of Helm, Danko and Manuel, both individually and collectively whether covering DYLAN material (`Tears Of Rage’, `I Shall Be Released’ and `This Wheel’s On Fire’) or tackling the compelling Robertson or Manuel-penned originals. From the former’s prudent guitar playing to the eclecticism of Hudson’s organ runs, the musicianship was flawless, and while songs like `The Weight’, `To Kingdom Come’, `Chest Fever’ and `Caledonia Mission’ were deceptively simple, they possessed an air of strange grace. Having previously been recorded by everyone from JOAN BAEZ to Johnny Cash (and much later, The CHIEFTAINS), Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin’s `Long Black Veil’ was also one the set’s many highlights.
If this album introduced The BAND as major contenders, then their eponymous follow-up assured them of a place in rock history. A veritable distillation of classic American musical tradition, THE BAND (1969) {*9} put rock into a bit of much-needed perspective, its rich beauty a reminder of why people set words to song in the first place. Vivid revisionist narratives like `The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ (soon to be a hit for JOAN BAEZ), `King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’ and `The Unfaithful Servant’ resonated as deeply as any Steinbeck novel, yet no one could accuse main songwriter Robertson of misty-eyed nostalgia; the characters and their attendant burdens that inhabit these songs were genuine, holding up a mirror to the struggles of modern society. Further complemented by two hit singles, `Up On Cripple Creek’ and `Rag Mama Rag’ (both sung by Helm, who co-penned `Jemima Surrender’), and three co-scribed by Manuel, `Whispering Pines’, `Jawbone’ and `When You Awake’, the album has a timeless charm.
By STAGE FRIGHT (1970) {*7}, Robertson’s songwriting prowess was becoming a little blunted. Much of the material centred on his on-the-road experiences (`The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’ and `Daniel And The Sacred Harp’), and while the likes of `The Shape I’m In’, `Time To Kill’ and the title track were enjoyable enough, there was nothing to match the depths of its predecessor.
CAHOOTS (1971) {*5} was even more bereft of fresh ideas, a Richard Manuel/VAN MORRISON duet, `4% Pantomime’, one of the record’s few saving graces; the other was arguably a charming version of DYLAN’s `When I Paint My Masterpiece’. Featuring a Dixieland horn section arranged by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint on `Life Is A Carnival’ (penned by Danko and Robertson), the album’s failure was down to several of the worst songs written by Robertson.
Recorded at their last New Year’s Eve bash, ROCK OF AGES (1972) {*7} was a competent, if pointless, double-live effort, once again embellished with horns courtesy of the ubiquitous ALLEN TOUSSAINT. Kicking off proceedings by way of the funky Holland-Dozier-Holland’s number, `Don’t Do It’, The BAND also premiere two other non-LP dirges, `Get Up, Jake’ (an old B-side from ’69) and C. Willis’ R&B cut, `(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes’. One could pick out any of the other 15 tracks by way of a live “best of” package, some of them tasty, some of them a bit croaky.
MOONDOG MATINEE (1973) {*4} was an even more inessential collection of rock’n’roll covers; their fanbase deserved better than eclectic renditions of… here goes:- Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s `Ain’t Got No Home’, TOUSSAINT’s `Holy Cow’, Braggs & Malone’s `Share Your Love’, ELVIS’s `Mystery Train’, Anton Karas’s `Third Man Theme’, CHUCK BERRY’s `Promised Land’, The PLATTERS’ `The Great Pretender’, FATS DOMINO’s `I’m Ready’, Leiber & Stoller’s `Saved’ and SAM COOKE’s `A Change Is Gonna Come’; there were even more bonus outtakes selections on the subsequent re-mastered CD.
Their first studio set of fresh tracks in four years, NORTHERN LIGHTS – SOUTHERN CROSS (1975) {*6}, saw the verve (small v!) returning to Robertson’s songwriting, while Hudson’s keyboard work came into its own. Very much in the vein of LITTLE FEAT or even JJ CALE, songs such as `Ophelia’, plus the lengthier `Acadian Driftwood’ and `It Makes No Difference’, brought back memories of why one loved The BAND in the first place.
By the following year, however, they’d decided enough was enough, playing their farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom on Thanksgiving Day. The event was recorded for posterity as THE LAST WALTZ (1978) {*8}, a triple album set that also served as a soundtrack for the Martin Scorsese’s rockumentary of the same name. As an historic record it encapsulates the conflicting emotions of the group’s reluctant demise and the almost defiant brilliance of both their own performance and that of their invited guests. With an all-star cast, the record was a spirited, poignant farewell to a group that had helped define an era. Canadians NEIL YOUNG (on `Helpless’) and JONI MITCHELL (with `Coyote’) are highlights here, while others (The STAPLE SINGERS, EMMYLOU HARRIS, NEIL DIAMOND and their old boss, Ronnie Hawkins) try in vain to rise to the occasion without ever really overshadowing their hosts; VAN MORRISON was the most celebratory courtesy of `Caravan’. By all accounts they were lucky to get him at all and the rare `Tura Lura Lural (That’s An Irish Lullaby)’ is alone worth the price of this disc. BOB DYLAN’s performance is as professional as it is inevitable, on a par with the contemporaneous Rolling Thunder material. Robertson’s almost Jack Nitzsche-esque `Theme From Last Waltz’ sees the whole thing out, hinting at his cinematic, post-BAND métier.
To fulfil contractual obligations (and to no doubt boost Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign by way of the old chestnut, `Georgia On My Mind’), their penultimate ISLANDS (1977) {*3}, was indeed rank. Easy, laid back and horizontal, the LP comprised group & Robertson originals (steer clear of `Christmas Must Be Tonight’) alongside another ill-flavoured cover choice, `Ain’t That A Lot Of Love’, penned by Homer Banks & co.
Various members went off to do their own thing (Robertson and Helm careered into acting) and that should’ve been the end of it. Inevitably it wasn’t, and while an initial comeback album attempt was dealt a severe blow when Manuel took his own life in 1986, the BAND did re-form the following decade (minus solo star Robbie, who knocked back an invitation to join).
Without two of their mainstays, the group were always going to find it difficult and indeed, their comeback album, JERICHO (1993) {*5}, was a pale imitation of their once-proud sound.
Comprised of only covers with the exception of Helm’s `Move To Japan’ & `The Caves Of Jericho’ (with new pianist, Richard Bell) and opener, `Remedy’ (penned by other recruit, Jim Weider), the album failed both critically and commercially. Of the covers, one could barely pass up versions of DYLAN’s `Blind Willie McTell’, SPRINGSTEEN’s `Atlantic City’, ARTIE TRAUM’s `Amazon (River Of Dreams)’, MUDDY WATERS’ `Stuff You Gotta Watch’, WILLIE DIXON’s `Same Thing’, The Delmore Brothers’ `Blues Stay Away From Me’ and the perennial `Shine A Light’.
HIGH ON THE HOG (1996) {*2}, meanwhile, consisted largely of well-below-par cover material such as `Forever Young’ and `I Must Love You Too Much’ (from DYLAN), JJ CALE’s `Crazy Mama’, BREAD’s `She Knows’, BILL CHAPLIN’s `Where Should I Always Be’, CHUCK BERRY’s `Back To Memphis’, Bruce Channel’s `Stand Up’, etc.
1998’s JUBILATION {*5}, was a more worthwhile proposition, a solid, earthy set of largely self-penned group songs which included a cover of ALLEN TOUSSAINT’s `You See Me’ and featured guest appearances from both ERIC CLAPTON and JOHN HIATT (the latter on his own `Bound By Love’); newcomer Randy Ciarlante (drums and vocals) helped contribute to `White Cadillac (Ode To Ronnie Hawkins)’ and `Spirit Of The Dance’. Sadly, just over a year later, RICK DANKO was found dead in his New York home on December 10, 1999, a day after his 56th birthday. This put paid to any further fresh BAND material, but their legacy continues through the odd compilation including umpteenth boxed set, A MUSICAL HISTORY (2005) {*9}. Further sorrow was felt, when LEVON HELM died of cancer on April 19, 2012.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/BG-GRD/LCS/GFD // rev-up MCS Jul2012

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