Tuesday, December 8, 2009
THE CDS: The Band
The Band -- Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson -- were a major musical entity of the ‘60s and early ‘70s that it took me awhile to get around to really listening to. I knew them as the guys who did the original version of 'The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down' which sometimes got airplay, but more often Joan Baez’s cover of it was heard. The first song of theirs I remember on Top 40 was 'Life is a Carnival,' and for awhile, when I was about 12, I contemplated getting the album (Cahoots, 1971, their fourth) because they covered a Dylan song, 'When I Paint My Masterpiece.' In fact, the main claim to fame of The Band was as the guys who backed Dylan on his legendary 'Dylan goes electric' tour. But them days was long gone. Until...
1974, and Dylan was on the road again, with The Band. This still didn’t make me a fan of theirs; I begrudged them their space on Before the Flood, the live album from the tour. Their music struck me at the time as a throwback to rockabilly, a version of Americana I had no real interest -- Brit Invasion brat that I was -- in embracing. My Dylan was the hipster Dylan of the ‘65-‘66 period, not the old folky. And whatever that legendary early tour (in ‘66) with Dylan sounded like (still hadn’t heard the bootlegs at this point), the revamped Dylan/The Band alliance gave us a Dylan ready to do some hog-calling, caterwauling all over the place. It took some getting used to.
Then came that phase, as high school began to come to an end, and as the forces of the ‘70s -- funk and disco, namely -- began to suck my will to live, and glam and prog were mostly kaput, when the only thing to do was return to the ‘60s. So I did, even reading a friend’s old copies of Rolling Stone from those fabled days. And there was Ralph Gleason touting the wonders of those first two albums by The Band, Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969), which I dutifully acquired and gradually began to enjoy. Already, in 1975, the long bootlegged collaborations of Dylan and The Band, set in the house known as Big Pink, had been partially released, cleaned-up and almost commercial quality, as The Basement Tapes. The capper to this incremental interest was Martin Scorsese’s rousing film of The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, on Thanksgiving, 1977, released to theaters in 1978.
Seeing The Band play live on the big screen confirmed a few things: they weren’t glamour boys, to be sure, but they were extremely able musicians whose interplay was simply great fun as music. This important element of their music had been somewhat lost, I felt, in their studio recordings. The sound of those first two albums already sounded dated and inadequate by the late ‘70s (after all those pristine prog recordings, and in comparison to the likes of Steely Dan where mulit-tracking of perfect studio performances was the ne plus ultra), but it was also the fact that The Band were just better when playing live. This is what gave so much charm to The Basement Tapes, the loose, ‘sit-in and see what happens’ feel to it all. The Band are better the more ramschackle it is.
Of course, in The Last Waltz, they’re all on their best behavior and there are many definitive deliveries on view: 'Stage Fright,' 'The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,' 'Up on Cripple Creek,' 'It Makes No Difference.' But I still don’t have that on CD. What I do have instead is the double CD release of what had been a double album in ‘72: Rock of Ages. The CD has extra tracks, including four songs with Dylan who showed up to cap the encore of the second night’s show, New Year's Eve, as 1971 became 1972, at Madison Square Garden.
Rock of Ages may be the best album by The Band; they were at their peak during that two night stand, and you can find there all the manifest qualities that made the sound of The Band unmistakable: Levon’s throaty delivery, always so full of vitality, and his crisp, precise drumming; Danko’s tremulous warble, so vulnerable and comical, and his floppy bass lines; Robbie’s needle-like lead guitar punctuations; Garth’s roomy, cathedral-like organ tones; Manuel’s piercing falsetto on 'I Shall Be Released' and his barroom-swagger baritone on 'The Shape I’m In' with his honkytonkin’ electric piano.
Having achieved an Americana -- interesting, considering that all but Helm are from Canada -- that is unique, their music seems more and more to exist in a timeless realm of its own. Sure, it’s the great era of the ‘60s/’70s when rock’n’roll still existed and when it was about musicians making music together more than anything else, but the themes and sounds of their best songs inhabit a world that was already old by then, what the music critic Greil Marcus calls 'Old Weird America,' that time when there was a real culture of the land, when town life wasn’t so homogenized, where idiosyncracies of place abounded. A song like 'The Weight,' maybe their best-known song, captures it all: the play-it-close-to-the-chest utterances of folk wisdom, with about equal measures of wit and dread.
Hats off to The Band!