Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Band - The Band (1969)

Virgil, quick come see - there goes the Robert E. Lee....


Released September 1969

Recorded in Los Angeles

For some reason, Bob Dylan’s mid-sixties backing band, after triumphally backing him notably on  “Blonde On Blonde” decided to cast themselves in the late sixties as poor nineteenth century farmers, complete with sepia photographs and big beards (on two of them). The music often had lyrics about life in that period, and often the US Civil War, such as the evocative tale narrated by the character of Virgil Cane in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (although I have always preferred Joan Baez’s version). The songs are delivered sensitively, observationally and with a little humour at times. They talk of the US Civil War, of getting through the winter snow, of tending crops, of life in Tennesse and so on. They were quite unique at the time. This physical and lyrical imagery is far more prominent here than on the previous years's far more psychedelic (in places) debut album, "Music From Big Pink".


1. Across The Great Divide
2. Rag Mama Rag
3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
4. When You Awake
5. Up On Cripple Creek
6. Whispering Pines
7. Jemima Surrender
8. Rockin' Chair
9. Look Out Cleveland
10. Jawbone
11. Unfaithful Servant
12. King Harvest                                             

The music is full, with a big drum and bass sound, Robbie Robertson’s guitar and Garth Hudson’s swirling, instantly recognisable organ sound dominating things. There is a bluesy feel to a lot of it, such as the shuffling “Up On Cripple Creek” and the upbeat, rollicking “Rag Mama Rag”. Bernie Taupin must have been so influenced by this album, lyrically, in its “Americana” aspects, and certainly Elton John uses a lot the musical style and vocal delivery in so much of the early seventies material. “Tumbleweed Connection” has a real feel of this album to it, both lyrically and musically.  “Across The Great Divide” was a lively, rocking number too, while they showed they could do plaintive ballads too on “Whispering Pines” and “When You Awake”.

The Band were quite notable in that vocals were taken, in different places, by Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Rick Danko and all five members made significant contributions to the sound. Their sound was, at the time, a very distinctive one, followed, of course,  by Elton John, Leon Russell and many others. Bruce Hornsby & The Range in the later years too. 

 “Jemima Surrender” has that archetypal Band sound. Yes, it is rock, but it has that bluesy and country edge to it too that made it stand out. Then there are the lyrics, certainly up there with some of of Dylan’s material from the same period. Indeed, many would argue that this is a superior album to “Nashville Skyline” by far. “Rockin’ Chair” is a melodic number evoking life in “old Virginny” from the nineteenth century. There was a total incongruity to these songs after the height of sixties psychedelia, man, but the “country rock” thing was taking over, so it fitted in fine, in other ways. 

“Look Out Cleveland” has a powerful drum, guitar and organ rocking interplay. “Jawbone” has some excellent piano,  but is slightly disjointed at times in its changes of pace. “Unfaithful Servant” is a slow, mournful bluesy number, with some great instrumental parts, about hard times back in the old days, while “King Harvest” closes the album with an organ-driven rocker about a union worker. Lyrics abound about “a dry summer” and “please let those crops grow”. There is a soulful feel to this one, almost funky in parts.

This was a ground-breaking, highly-influential album. The remastered sound quality is excellent too.


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