Sunday, 26 July 2020

The Band

"Songs don't wear out. Good songs are good now. If they were a comfort during those hard times in the past, they'll be a comfort in today's age" - Levon Helm
Music From Big Pink (1968)

Tears Of Rage/To Kingdom Come/In A Station/Caledonia Mission/The Weight/We Can Talk/Long Black Veil/Chest Fever/Lonesome Suzie/This Wheel's On Fire/I Shall Be Released/Yazoo Street Scandal      

Bob Dylan's backing band finally turned into their own entity for this, their debut album. They hadn't quite gone full-on with the nineteenth-century sharecropper look for this album, but they are getting there, certainly lyrically.
As would characterise their subsequent work, all five members - Rick DankoGarth HudsonRobbie RobertsonLevon Helm and Richard Manuel interacted superbly, both musically and vocally, giving the album a sort of "almost live" feel, as if it were an ad hoc jam in some ways. Lyrically, it wasn't quite as nineteenth century as the next album would be, there were still some hippy-era remnants of airy, trippy lyrics, such as on In A Station - about climbing mountains and eating wild fruit. There are still moments of lyrics concentrating on rural life and family values, however, which would provide a pointer to the future.

Tears Of Rage, co-written with Dylan, is a rousing opener, with a bluesy sound and some great guitar, while To Kingdom Come had an impressive drum rhythm and another blues-influenced rock sound. 

In A Station begins with a sort of medieval keyboard sound, and there are definite psychedelic hints in the bass sound. The album still very much reflects the turmoil of the late sixties far more than the next album, The Band did, which was far more nostalgic for life a hundred years earlier and dipped into "Americana" a lot more. 

Caledonia Mission has echoes of Dylan's "wild mercury sound" from Blonde On Blonde in its cymbal sound. As with all The Band's early work, Elton John's seventies material was so influenced by it, both musically and lyrically.

Then there is The Weight, still the group's most famous song. This is where the imagery of the old rural mid-West and the Americana thing really kicks in. It is a great country-ish piece of rock blues. What was it about? Who were the characters? Fanny, Anna Lee, Crazy Chester and so on. Who knows, it was all highly evocative, though. 

We Can Talk begins with some churchy organ and continues into an upbeat rock number that surely was the inspiration for many similar seventies rock numbers. It reminds me of so many things, yet I can't put my finger on what they are - Free? Early Rod Stewart? The Faces? Elton John? Maybe all of them.

Long Black Veil is a slow paced, mournful, country blues with some similar vocal harmonies to The Weight

Chest Fever begins with some madcap Deep Purple-esque psychedelic organ before it launches into a slow burning, bassy, rhythmic, pumping blues rocker. It is one of their most "1968" songs on the album. The organ sound is most foreboding, like something out of a Vincent Price horror movie.


Lonesome Suzie is a plaintive, sensitive organ-driven ballad and then we get a couple of well-known Dylan compositions - This Wheel's On Fire and I Shall Be Released. The former is a guitar-led atmospheric number that charted for Julie Driscoll and The Brian Auger Trinity who turned it into something far ore psychedelic than its is here. The latter is a wonderful, hooky lament from an unfairly jailed prisoner. It has been covered by many artists subsequently. My favourite, is by The Tom Robinson Band in 1978. It also has a keyboard sound reminiscent of Them's cover of Dylan's It's All Over Now Baby Blue.

Yazoo Street Scandal is a rocking, rhythmic, organ riffy number to close the set. It is the most rocky track on the album. For some reason, in the verses, I get hints of U2's Bullet The Blue Sky in there somewhere. The influences of The Band on many other groups are manifold. The their next album, this was an influential, ground-breaking piece of work.

The Band (1969)

Across The Great Divide/Rag Mama Rag/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down/When You Awake/Up On Cripple Creek/Whispering Pines/Jemima Surrender/Rockin' Chair/Look Out Cleveland/Jawbone/Unfaithful Servant/King Harvest       

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.
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 RagBernie 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 ManuelLevon 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 JohnLeon 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. Interestingly, the alternative versions of several of the tracks are deeper and bassier and, for me, preferable to the ones on the original album.

Stage Fright (1970)

Strawberry Wine/Sleeping/Time To Kill/Just Another Whistle Stop/All La Glory/The Shape I'm In/The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show/Daniel And The Sacred Harp/Stage Fright/The Rumor

This was The Band’s third album and, in many ways was more of the same solid country rock played in the powerful style that they had as good as patented pretty much as their own. Many reviews have stated that there are darker, more personal lyrics in this one, but I always found the group to be serious and realistically honest, lyrically, whether talking about themselves or the characters they described.

There is actually not too much to write about this album, it comes from the same crop as the previous two and is less worthy of detailed analysis, for some reason. That is probably why it has not received the critical kudos that the other two have.

Strawberry Wine is an upbeat piece of country-ish rock, with a nice deep bass line and some subtle Cajun-esque accordion. 

Sleeping is a plaintive, piano-driven ballad with a beefy chorus. There are bits in it that put me in mind of Billy Joel's 1974 material.

Time To Kill is another country-influenced, highly enjoyable barroom romp and the same can be applied to the more typically Band sound of Just Another Whistle Stop

All La Glory, written by Robbie Robertson about the birth of his daughter but sung by Levon Helm, is a sleepy ballad with another entrancing, beautifully resonant bass line.


The next two tracks have become well known ones over time - the archetypal Band rock of The Shape I’m In and the rollicking, tent show Americana fun of The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show with its semi-funky guitar backing. It has the feeling of the previous two albums about it, particularly Big Pink

The Biblically-inspired Daniel And The Sacred Harp ploughs The Band’s well trodden pioneer farming hard times but nostalgic furrow. They did this historical-themed stuff with a contemporary fable-style message very well, but I have always wondered what appeal it had in 1970. Obviously a lot, as the group were very successful.

Stage Fright is another popular, organ-dominated and melodious number, written autobiographically by Robertson about his own affliction. This relatively short album ends with the robustly sombre The Rumor, which is a bit of an underrated number, in my opinion.

The group’s next offering would be the excellent, horn-enhanced live double album, Rock Of Ages, which took them to another level, musically, for me.

Rock Of Ages (1972)

Don't Do It/King Harvest/Caledonia Mission/Get Up, Jake/W. S. Walcott's Medicine Show/Stage Fright/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down/Across The Great Divide/This Wheel's On Fire/Rag Mama Rag/The Weight/The Shape I'm In/Unfaithful Servant/Life Is A Carnival/The Genetic Method/Chest Fever/I Don't Want To Hang Up My Rock 'n' Roll Shoes

As Robbie Robertson announces at the beginning of the second half of their late 1971 shows, The Band were going to try do something different here - their traditional country rock sound surprisingly enhanced on this by now seemingly obligatory live double album from 1972 with the engagement of a kicking horn section. It turns them into a sort of Little Feat meets Tower Of Power outfit at times and is a most enjoyable experience, I must say. It goes without saying that the group’s other instrumentation is top notch - pounding drums, deep, rubbery bass, incisive guitar and swirling organ. For me, this is as good as The Band ever sounded.

The songs are taken from various concerts but it plays as if it is one show, with a nice running order and continuity.

Don’t Do It (a cover of Marvin Gaye’s upbeat 1964  r ‘n’ b number Baby Don’t You Do It) is a fabulously brassy, full of funk opener and the throbbing funky feel continues on King Harvest, a song that almost seems to have undergone a renaissance. Check out that funky bass/drum interplay half way through. It reminds me of Traffic from the same era. Caledonia Mission is cookin’ from the very start, bubbling over with tasty horns.


Get Up, Jake features some excellent organ and guitar and some of that more familiar Band vocal feel while the singalong W. S. Walcott’s Medicine Show is well suited to the brass accompaniment. The crowd whoop their appreciation for the saxophone solo and cheer each horn player’s individual parts. Stage Fright is delivered in the moving manner it deserves on the quiet bits and pounds away otherwise, oh and I forgot to mention Garth Hudson’s archetypal organ solo, which is pretty sacrilegious as it is superb. One of my all-time favourites, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, is given a slow, New Orleans-esque makeover. It merges into Across The Great Divide which rocks powerfully and with a muscular intent. Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire sounds like Dylan all funked up with some seriously impressive guitar too.

The always quirky Rag Mama Rag is unsurprisingly a bit ragtime in its brass bits, while the iconic The Weight is as winning as you would expect, such a great song will never sound bad. I have loved it for years. The Shape I’m In rocks solidly, with no need for horns (possibly taken from the non-horn part of the set). It is the organ that takes centre stage again here. Unfaithful Servant slows the pace down and also features an absolutely killer guitar solo. The saxophone reminds me of that used on David Bowie’s 1974 David Live album.

Life Is A Carnival bristles with chunky brass and powerful rock funk. The Genetic Method has some Deep Purple meets prog rock crazy organ for its seven minutes - very 1971-72 and a little bit indulgent. Eventually it morphs into a horn-drenched version of Chest Fever. The original album ends with a rocking, barroom cover of Chuck Willis’s I Don’t Want To Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes.

The bonus material now available includes a staccato, soulful cover of The Four Tops’ Loving You Has Made My Life Sweeter Than Ever, impressive versions of I Shall Be Released and Up On  Cripple Creek and unsurprisingly bassy and robust versions of The Rumor, the country-ish Rockin’ Chair and Time To Kill.

A nice surprise in this expanded edition is the appearance of old boss Bob Dylan for the final four numbers. They deliver a lazily laid-back but insistently thumping Down In The Flood, a similar When I Paint My Masterpiece, a superbly rocking Don’t You Tell Henry and a version of Like A Rolling Stone that provided a prototype for the one they would play three years later on Before The Flood.

This is a wonderful live album from a stunning group and it still sounds so damn good today. It makes me wish it was 1972 again.

The Last Waltz: The Full Concert (1976)


Recorded live at Winterland, San Francisco on 25 November 1976

This was The Band’s farewell concert, from 1976, from WinterlandSan Francisco. It included several guest performers, these are all shown on the track listing of the original concert shown here.

It is a wonderful show from beginning to end, with top quality sound and stunning performances from The Band and their guests. It is seventies, full-powered Americana rock music of the highest order.

You get most of The Band’s famous songs - The WeightUp On Cripple Creek, Rag Mama Rag, Stage Fright and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - all played with a verve and vitality that takes your breath away. A great, lesser-known song is the saxophone-enhanced It Makes No Difference.

Muddy Waters sings some top notch blues - the romp that is Caldonia and the iconic Mannish BoyPaul Butterfield gives us more blues on the punchy Mystery Train and Eric Clapton rocks on Further On Up The RoadVan Morrison has a great shot at stealing the show with Caravan while the concluding performances with Bob Dylan are as good as you would expect them to be. It is good to hear Hazel get a rare airing . It was good to hear the group’s original employer, Ronnie Hawkins, joining them for the rocking Who Do You Love. Then there is Neil Young, with his atmospheric, plaintive CSNY song, Helpless. The quality goes on and on. Joni Mitchell is quirkily appealing, bringing a different kind of atmosphere with her laid-back sound and witty, observational lyrics.

A slightly odd appearance was made by Neil Diamond, who sung Dry Your Eyes, which was co-written with The Band’s Robbie Robertson. He performs it well, nailing it, but, as an artist, his presence seemed a bit incongruous with the others there. It certainly was thought as such at the time. Diamond was seen as "uncool". I don’t mind, though, as I like him anyway. He deserves more respect than he ever gets/got. That is exactly what Robertson gave him.

He said, in retrospect, of the inclusion of Diamond at his request -

"The Tin Pan Alley songwriters in New York crafted brilliant songs for people to record, but they weren't performers," Robertson said in the The Last Waltz liner notes. "Neil Diamond bridged that world. When I worked with him on his record, people said, 'Is this a put-on?' No, it wasn't. This guy is really good at what he does and comes from this tradition of songwriting. He wanted to be one of those people - Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Carole King, Gerry Goffin. I thought what he does is as good as anybody who played The Last Waltz."

Back to the overall album. You can pretty much say that every song is excellent. There really isn’t anything sub-standard on here. Check out something like Ophelia, for example - the organ, drums, guitar, horns, everything in perfect sync. Or try the riffy, brassy rock of The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show. They were a truly excellent group and, although the cognoscenti have always adored them, widespread acclaim has often eluded them. For a few years in the seventies, they were one of the best bands around.

FULL CONCERT SET LIST (guest artists shown in brackets)

Theme From The Last Waltz/Up On Cripple Creek/The Shape I’m In/It Makes No Difference/Who Do You Love (Ronnie Hawkins)/Life Is A Carnival/Such A Night (Dr. John)/The Weight/Down South In New Orleans (Bobby Charles)/This Wheel’s On Fire/Mystery Train (Paul Butterfield)/Caldonia (Muddy Waters)/Mannish Boy (Muddy Waters)/Stage Fright/Rag Mama Rag/All Our Past Times (Eric Clapton)/Further On Up The Road (Eric Clapton)/Ophelia/Helpless (Neil Young)/Four Strong Winds (Neil Young)/Coyote (Joni Mitchell)/Shadows And Light (Joni Mitchell)/Furry Sings The Blues (Joni Mitchell)/Acadian Driftwood (Joni Mitchell)/Dry Your Eyes (Neil Diamond)/The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show/Tura Lura Lura (Van Morrison)/Caravan (Van Morrison)/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down/The Genetic Method/Chest Fever/Baby Let Me Follow You Down (Bob Dylan)/Hazel (Bob Dylan)/I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Bob Dylan)/Forever Young (Bob Dylan)/I Shall Be Released (ensemble)

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