Saturday, June 20, 2009

Album project: The Band

The Band, Stage Fright (1970); The Band, Greatest Hits (2000): If this were a serious rock history, The Band would receive a good deal more attention. They were one of rock's seminal quintets, taking part in some key historical moments and contributing a number of works regarded by many as classics. Only a few of their songs really caught my ear, though, and their greatest-hits collection more than serves my needs.

Their roots were with 50's rockabilly outfit Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks. Such outfits were a dime a dozen in their native Arkansas, but Hawkins was able to make connections in Toronto and discovered a fresh market for their sound. Over the next several years, The Hawks were a popular act on the Canadian club circuit. Drummer Levon Helm accompanied Hawkins on his trip north; Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson replaced the other original Hawks as they became homesick and returned to Arkansas.

Splitting from Hawkins in 1964, they worked some as Levon And The Hawks before coming to the attention of Bob Dylan, who was looking for musicians for his first electric tour. That tour became one of rock's historic moments, as Dylan and The Hawks tore through their set with savage fury while the audience, accustomed to seeing Dylan perform alone with just his acoustic guitar and harmonica, responded with loud booing and heckling. The negative reaction proved to much for Helm, who left early in the tour and returned to Arkansas. Later, Dylan and the group, now referred to simply as "The Band", settled in Woodstock, New York, with Danko, Hudson and Manuel moving into a large house they dubbed "Big Pink". During Dylan's long recovery period following his 1966 motorcycle accident, they jammed together in the basement of Big Pink, producing a legendary series of recordings known as the Basement Tapes. The association with Dylan had a marked effect on the group's sound, as Dylan introduced them to various styles of folk, country and R&B, as well as becoming a significant influence on Robbie Robertson's songwriting. Earning their own recording contract in 1968, they talked Helm into rejoining the group and recorded the classics Music From Big Pink and The Band.

The latter albums are the place to start for those who wish to further explore The Band's career. Music From Big Pink featured "The Weight", "Tears Of Rage", and "Chest Fever". The album showcased their eclectic songwriting and unusual song structures. Helm, Danko, and Manuel handled lead vocals: none of them were polished singers, but were able to convey a wide range of emotion through their creative arrangements. All were proficient multi-instrumentalists, and producer John Simon practically became a sixth member, adding madcap horns and other flourishes. The Band was the group's finest hour, with "Up On Cripple Creek", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "Rag Mama Rag", and a host of other performances that earned the disc a place on many lists of rock's greatest albums. The album has a timeless feel to it, as though the songs were found in some obscure early 20th Century book of folk tunes. The Band's ability to evoke old Americana became the key to their charm.

Stage Fright, despite a couple of good rockers like "The Shape I'm In", was a decline from the high standard set by the first two LP's. The title track, easily the best tune on the disc, describes the pressures the band was feeling from life on the road and the need to come up with new material. Robbie Robertson said, "It was named after the experience of having put ourselves in the public eye but we were kind of private people at the same time. Taking our music out and performing it, there was something very private about it and the way we performed it was not very flashy or showy. We just came for business so we could go on and play our hearts out. There was some kind of yin-yang between our nature and what concerts really were. It was almost like a classical music in performance than it was of coming out and wearing cut-off leotards and buckskins. We're not here for nonsense, we're not here for people to get drunk while we're playing anymore. We wanted to shed that skin. It was just a different thing. Not being very showy it all added up to this kind of stage fright thematic thing in our lives. It became so vulnerable and sensitive somehow, presenting this music in public."

The Band's later work never again quite reached the standards of the earlier LP's. Cahoots was a laid-back affair best noted for "Life Is A Carnival". "Rock Of Ages" was a live recording. Moondog Matinee featured idiosyncratic covers of their favorite 50's tunes. After a lengthy hiatus, they returned to form somewhat with 1975's Northern Lights-Southern Cross. "Acadian Driftwood", a wistful tale of the Acadians' expulsion from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1750's, stands as one of the group's best tracks. In general, though, their inspiration had been lagging for some time. As well, tensions were increasing between Robertson and the rest of the group. Other group members complained that Robertson was hogging the limelight, while Robertson said he had begged the other group members to help out with songwriting, but they seldom came up with anything. The animosities took their toll on the group's communal spirit that was at the heart of their greatest performances.

The Band played one last show at San Francisco's Winterland on Thanksgiving 1976, a performance immortalized in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz. The movie is almost as notable for all the celebrities that gathered to bid the group farewell as it is for The Band's performances themselves. Robbie Robertson's outsized ego tends to dominate the proceedings, while Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson are hardly seen at all. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is one of the film's better moments.

The Band reunited in 1983 without Robertson, who has kept his distance from the other group members over the years. Robertson for his part has kept busy with a variety of solo projects, the best-known being his 1987 disc Robbie Robertson. Richard Manuel, having a long history of substance abuse issues, committed suicide in 1986. In 1999, Rick Danko, also having battled drug problems for many years, died in his sleep. The Band broke up for good at that point, with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson engaging in a number of solo activities since. Helm and Robertson, feuding over songwriting credits and a number of other issues dating from The Band's heyday, have reportedly not spoken in years.