Monday, 27 July 2020

Boz Scaggs

"I am not a jazz singer. I wouldn't place myself on that footing. I wouldn't even enter that arena" - Boz Scaggs 

Boz Scaggs (1969)

This was Boz Scaggs’ second album, released in 1969 on the Atlantic label, and was almost a complete commercial failure, which was a pity, as its blend of soul, rock, pop, Americana and a sort of country-ish jazzy feel was really impressive, especially for 1969. To be honest, there is not a huge difference between some of the more soulful material on this and the hit 1976 album Silk Degrees, minus the country rock from this one (and four big hits from that one, of course). The backing musicians are no other than the Atlantic Records Muscle Shoals studio session musicians.

I’m Easy opens things up with a thumping, brassy groover, backed up by some woo-ooh gospelly female backing voices. I’ll Be Long Gone is a fine soulful slow number backed by some very Stax-sounding Booker T. Jones meets Georgie Fame organ. Another Day (Another Letter) is a very Memphis-influenced soul ballad. These three are the album’s most soulful tracks and its best ones too.

The winsome Now You’re Gone taps into the contemporary trend for gentle, melodious country rock while the vaguely McCartney-esque Finding Her is a quirky, staccato slow one. It utilises some classical-sounding keyboards and a waltz beat together with some jazzy syncopated percussion to great effect. 
Look What I Got is a slide guitar-backed piece of bluesy slow soul enhanced by some robust brass. Waiting For A Train was a very Americana-influenced number with a nice bluesy feel, save a few Jimmie Rodgers (it was va cover of one of his songs) yodel-style vocals. Loan Me A Dime, for some reason, is deafeningly loud in comparison to the album’s other tracks, with a huge pounding drum sound and a deep as hell bass. There is also considerable tape hiss that makes you think your speakers are packing up. It features Duane Allman on some unsurprisingly fabulous blues guitar and is twelve and a half minutes long in true end of the sixties indulgent (but ultimately forgivable) fashion. The final track, Sweet Release, is a wonderful piece of Van Morrison-esque white soul. It almost could be the man himself.

This album was a sort of of AOR soul/rock offering before it was invented. Maybe this went some way to inventing it. It was a shame it didn’t do the business, but you can sort of hear why - while certainly not bad, it is not edge of your seat good either. I can listen to it and think “hmm that’s ok” but I don’t think “wow” either. That said, listening to it, I realise that Scaggs had something and that the music he was recording was well ahead of its time, both in its quality and its white soul vision. Scaggs is pictured above with co-producer Jann S. Wenner (right).

Silk Degrees (1976)

This was the album, from 1976, that brought Boz Scaggs to people’s attention, although it was  actually his seventh outing. The year, and through to 1977, was ideal for this sort of music to succeed, for although punk had taken its hold, it still had not broken into the mainstream and this sort of easy listening pop/soul/funk was very popular. Its breezy, soulful sounds brings back memories of the hot summers of 1976 and 1977. As white soul/rock goes, it is a classic of its genre and was always a credible album to name-drop if you wanted to show what great taste you had, along with Warren Zevon and Little Feat. Even into 1978-79, punks and new wavers still had time for artists like Scaggs and Zevon.

What Can I Say was the album’s first really big hit (top ten in the UK in January 1977) and it was a perfect mix of laid-back pop funk and Philly-style string-backed soul. Georgia is a lively serving of more funky pop, enhanced by some  fine saxophone. Jump Street is a pounding rocker with bluesy bits and hints of Elton John and Billy Joel too in its piano parts. At times Scaggs’ vocals sounds a bit Jagger-esque. What Do You Want The Girl To Do? also has an Elton John influence in its immaculately-produced rocking soul. 

Harbor Lights is a sleepy, jazzy ballad that highlighted what a good voice Scaggs had/has. It is sublime late night fare. It has a feel of Chris Rea’s slow, relaxing material about it.

Lowdown was also a minor hit single and remains a soul funk favourite that will make it on to playlists on dedicated soul shows and no soul aficionado will object. There is a bit of Latin Hustle disco flute twittering around on here too. 
It’s Over could almost be Tavares or The Detroit Spinners when you hear its brass and strings intro. Once again, it is a wonderful piece of lively summery poppy soul. In many ways, stuff like this is just as much the sound of 1976-77 as any early punk or disco. Love Me Tomorrow is a slightly funky soully number and then we get one of my all time favourite mid-late seventies singles in the infectious, horn-driven glory of Lido Shuffle. I am sure the song borrows slightly from Bruce Springsteen’s Kitty’s Back in one of its horn riffs though, the instrumental break near the end. The album ends with the sumptuous ballad We’re All Alone, a beautiful song that became better known through Rita Coolidge’s version, which was a big chart hit. It is a staple of “romantic rock ballads” compilations. All these years later, Scaggs is still recording but despite some excellent albums he never really bettered this, commercially.

Fade Into Light (1996/2005)

Released on 19th November 1996 (Japan)
Released on 27th September 2005 (US)

For some reason, this superbly soulful, soothing album was released twice, nine years apart. Either way, it is a masterpiece of smoochy, romantic soul/AOR. Scaggs is rarely mentioned as a master of the genre, but he truly is. This appealing album is proof.

Scaggs uses many musicians on the album and the quality shines through on both their playing and the sound quality.
Lowdown is a deliciously laid-back piece of soul/slow burning soft rock, featuring some Sade-style late night saxophone. Scaggs' vocal is appealing mellifluous and supremely soulful. Some Things Happen has an infectious, rhythmic guitar and gentle percussion intro. Once again, Scaggs is seductively attractive on his vocal and perfect for late night radio. The Lighthouse Family's vocalist had a similar voice. The backing vocals interplay with Scaggs on the chorus is sublime. Just Go is just a wonderful, slow, romantic and sensitive number. 

Love TKO is a Bobby Womack song previously covered by Teddy Pendergrass which Scaggs does highly credible justice to. The soul feeling on here is peerless, as indeed is the guitar work. Fade Into Light is a classic Scaggs ballad with that distinctive We're All Alone-sounding vocal. Harbor Lights is a gentle piano-powered ballad with a real jazzy feel to it and a lovely deep stand-up bass sound. It has an excellent piano/bass/drum instrumental bit at the end. Lost It is just beautiful - slow, romantic and sensual. Check out that heavenly organ break too. Time continues in a laid-back, vaguely Latin American acoustic guitar-driven groove. The song breaks out into a fast-paced bit of bluesy rock half way through, impressively. There is a great wah-wah guitar solo on it too. 

Sierra is simply delightful, airy, melodic and breezy in a very late seventies Al Stewart way. Once again, some fantastic guitar brings the track to a close. Scaggs then revisits his huge hit We're All Alone in slightly unplugged style, with just him, the piano and some subtle strings. It is simply a marvellous song and needs little further comment from me. Simone is a samba-influenced slow ballad. It is a bit Chris Rea-ish. I'll Be The One washes over you in a very laid-back, waves on the shore fashion. It utilises some contemporary r 'n' b scratching soinds on the backing, probably unnecessarily. Stick this on as a late night album, it can't fail.

Memphis (2013)
Some artists just don’t let you down. They are honest artists who release honest music and have been doing so for years. Boz Scaggs is one of those artists.
There is a wonderful Memphis soul feel to this album. Just listen to the first two tracks, as Boz evokes Al Green. That organ backing on Gone Baby Gone and the drum sound and Boz’s Green-esque vocal on So Good To Be Here. Oh and did I mention the horns? 

The beautiful laid-back soul groove of Love On A Two Way Street is intoxicating. Can I Change My Mind is a lovely piece of relaxing late night soul, while Dry Spell features some searing Chris Rea-style blues slide guitar. You Got Me Cryin' is a good slow blues too. As a huge Mink De Ville fan, I was interested to hear the covers of one of my favourites, Mixed Up Shook Up Girl and the swamp-rock-ish Cadillac WalkBoz does them justice.... he also does Steely Dan’s New Orleans-inspired Pearl Of The Quarter. Covers of Rainy Night In Georgia (which has to be covered well, or not at all) and Corinna Corinna, where he sounds like acoustic Bruce Springsteen, are similarly impressive. Sunny Gone closes the album in reflective, slow jazzy mood. As I said you can trust Boz. You can’t really go wrong.

Check out the afore-mentioned Mink De Ville's work here :-

The Eagles

"We set out to become a band for our time. But sometimes if you do a good-enough job, you become a band for all time" - Glenn Frey 

Eagles (1972)

This was The Eagles' debut album, from 1972. It was a pleasant, perfectly easy on the air mix of country and rock with some folky airs floating around. High quality vocals from different members was also a notable thing about the band, who went on to be huge, million selling artists. Ironically for such a slice of Americana, it was apart from Nightingale, recorded in London.
Jackson Browne's piece of upbeat, country rock perfection that is Take It Easy opens the album, with its "well I'm runnin' down the road, tryin' to loosen my load, I got seven women on my mind..." first verse, while Witchy Woman has a killer heavy rock riff and a general bluesy rock feel. It is a powerful cut. that showed the band were not all about Take It Easy style AOR. Folk-country rock was de rigeur in 1972, and this album fitted in well with the genre. Stuff like this was very much the sound of America in 1972, while the UK was in the grip of glam rock, The US music scene was nothing like that. One look at the charts all the time showed that to be the case.

Chug All Night is another pounding rocker, sounding a little like some of Elton's John's rocking material from the period (which possibly helps to explain why Elton did so well in the US). It has a mysterious, funky little bass and quiet vocal part that is sort of endearing. 
Most Of Us Are Sad is a tender rock ballad and Nightingale gets back to riffy, lively melodic rocking. Incidentally, the sound on this remastered version is excellent, taken from The Complete Studio Recordings box set. Train Leaves Here This Morning is a beautiful country ballad with a gorgeous bass line. Take The Devil is a big, chunky, electric riff-dominated rock song with some excellent sleepy guitar in the middle. Earlybird is a guitar-picking country rocker with distinct airs in its harmonious vocals of Crosby, Stills, Nash & YoungTryin' has another fiery guitar riff and energetic guitar abounds throughout the track. On the whole, this album is more rock than country. Peaceful Easy Feeling is pretty much what everyone recognises as classic Eagles - twangy, melodic guitar, steady country beat, perfectly pitched slightly mournful vocals and a general feeling of being in a sparsely populated Mid-Western roadhouse at the end of a hot afternoon, with just the barmaid and a few local guys for company.

Desperado (1973)

This, The Eagles' second outing was a mix of vibrant country rockers and finger-picking country folk numbers, with the balance in favour of the former. It really is, in places, quite a heavy rocking album, far more so than many would imagine. Like their debut album, strangely, it was recorded in the cold English winter, in 1972-1973, as opposed to California or the baking desert heat of Arizona. To add to that expected US West image, though, the group appear on the cover on a grainy photo looking like Old West outlaws. The Band had led the way in this retro look a few years earlier.

The opener, Doolin'-Dalton, (what did that mean?) was influenced by The Band, and had a real bluesy rock power, despite its country feel in the vocals and theme. Twenty-One was more of a melodic light country folk number. The rock power is back, however, on the gloriously riffy and powerful Out Of Control, a track that showed that The Eagles could really rock, despite their laid-back, easy country rock image. Tequila Sunrise is a track well-known to many, it is melodiously atmospheric, beautifully sung and played and just has that hot, dusty, travelling through South-West USA feeling about it. Desperado is a beautiful, evocative piano and strings backed ballad that kicks in half way through with a huge rock backing and the vocal is just superb. 

The rocking Certain Kind Of Fool has a real hint of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers about it (three years before that band came into existence), with echoes of Little Feat and The Doobie Brothers too. A snatch of Doolin'-Dalton (Instrumental) leads from this track into the muscular, solid rock of Outlaw Man, which is almost Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque in its whiskey-swilling rocking bluesiness. The end of the track has the band really giving it some. After all that rocking out, it is time to retire to the roadhouse or cantina for a bit of country mournfulness. Saturday Night provides just that with a lovely piece of laid-back country balladry. Bitter Creek is a delightful, tuneful CSNY-America-influenced harmonious slice of country folk. The album ends with a reprise of Doolin'-Dalton that sounds much more folky and laid-back than the first version of the song and merges into a reprise of Desperado in its solid rock passage. Instead of being the repetition of previous tracks that it would seem to be, it actually works well. The album as a whole, is a largely upbeat, if a bit short, piece of work. The current remastering is good quality as well.

On The Border (1974)
After two excellent and varied country rock-harder rock albums, The Eagles were back with a similar mix of styles showing that were never always simply the "easy-listening" laid-back country rockers they have often been perceived to be. Although the producer Glyn Johns wanted to emphasise the country sound, band members Don Henley and Glenn Frey got their way in introducing more rock to the band's songs. In many ways this was a transitional album, as the band began to explore different styles.

The Jackson Browne-esque Already Gone is a superb piece of of solid West Coast US rock. It is powerful, riffy, melodic and atmospheric. One of the Eagles' best tracks. You Never Cry Like A Lover goes from being hugely powerful to quiet and tender between its verses and chorus. It is both melodious and muscular. Midnight Flyer is a finger-pickin' bluegrass-ish piece of fun. It is lively, jaunty and just enjoyable. It has some excellent bass and drum interplay at the end. My Man is a country tribute to the recently-deceased Gram Parsons. It is a Parsons-esque, laid-back, slide guitar-driven song. It is quite lovely. "We who must remain, go on living just the same..." is a touching refrain.

On The Border has that characteristic Don Henley throaty vocal over another solidly grinding, mid-pace rock beat. It is almost funky r 'n' b in its feel. It has an intoxicating instrumental break two-thirds of the way through. 
James Dean is a corker of an Eagles rocker. Back in 1973 I remember hearing this played by Johnnie Walker on Radio 1 as a teenager. It was the very first time I had heard The Eagles. Funny how one remembers things like that. Ol' 55 is a classic steel guitar, harmonious "freeways, cars and trucks" ballad that The Eagles did so well. It is actually a Tom Waits cover, but it suits the group perfectly. Is It True is a powerful rock song, again with some great harmonies, but also some copper-bottomed chunky guitar. Good Day In Hell is a wonderful rocker, full of riffs and searing guitars runs and a great rock vocal. The album is ended by the classic, unforgettable country ballad The Best Of Your Love. That track is pretty much perfection. These early Eagles albums are most enjoyable, only short, but varied, and the sound and playing is high quality. They were far more than just a "best of" group. Their albums were great too.

One Of These Nights (1975)

This Eagles album, their fourth, came fourteen months after On The Border and saw the start of the group’s rise to superstardom of the road’s middle. That said, the album is one that showcases several different styles, from country rock to harder rock to soul, disco, balladry and even prog. They were a far cleverer group than they were ever given credit for.

One Of These Nights needs no introduction, from its semi-funky slow, brooding intro to its melodious, catchy chorus. The song flirted with soul vibes and even a tiny bit of an insistent disco rhythm too, something that the group had not done previously. The mainstream was there to be taken and The Eagles were certainly not ignoring the opportunity.

Too Many Hands initially sees a return to the muscular rock sound of the previous album, chugging along robustly until it is enhanced by some almost psychedelic bongos and Eastern-sounding guitar interplay - you feel you have walked in on a late sixties-early seventies party. 
Hollywood Waltz is one of those Don Henley country rock slow ballads that he did so well. That voice and that down on one’s luck barroom sound is so evocative.

The Eagles were, despite being often unfairly pigeonholed as being formulaic, often keen to throw in an inventive curveball and they do so here with a beguiling six and a half minute instrumental in Journey Of The Sorcerer. Here they merge country rock with prog, would you believe. It is a couple of minutes too long, though. It was used as the heme music to the TV show The Hitch-Hilker's Guide To The Galaxy, not something I ever watched, so I didn't know that. We are back on familiar ground on the iconic, sad narrative Lyin’ Eyes which is as good an example of driving along the freeway country rock as is possible to hear. It is what everyone things of when they think of The Eagles, and why not, it is simply a great song. People can mock the group all they like just as they do Dire Straits and post 1975 Fleetwood Mac but I hold no truck with them - this is a great record. I liked it even during my punk days. A good song is a good song as is the next one, Take It To The Limit, a song often quoted by my uncle in his later years - he lived to be 92. Both these songs are packed with killer lyrics, superb vocal delivery and irresistible melodies. The Eagles at their very best.

Visions is a riffy rocker and After The Thrill Is Gone is a strong, dignified slow rock ballad with a fine, deep bass line and moving Henley vocal. As with many seventies albums, however, it was over very quickly and we get to the closer, the end of the evening ballad I Wish You Peace before we know it - forty-three minutes or so but it seems less to me. Furthermore, I guess the album’s three big hits are now so well known that I can’t assess the album without avoiding saying that they are clearly the stand outs. Incidentally, the final song as co-written (allegedly) by Ronald Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, partner of Eagle Bernie Leadon. It was put on the album as a favour to Leadon, despite others in the band hating it, feeling it was not representative of their work. Listening to its syrupy string backing, you can see what they meant.

Hotel California (1976)

This was The Eagles’ huge, multi-million selling album, the moment that they became a massive stadium-filling band. It arrived eighteen months after their previous outing, “One Of These Nights”. The departure of Bernie Leadon had taken much of the band’s initial country flavour from them and rock guitarist Joe Walsh’s arrival saw them taking a big leap from being a country rock band that tried to rock out heavily on occasions to a fully-fledged mainstream rock band. Don Henley also became the band’s main vocalist, featuring on six tracks here. In many ways, The Eagles on this, and on their final album, The Long Run, sound like a different band. This material is a long way from Doolin-Dalton and Desperado, it is far more big stadium or arena tour than dusty roadhouse.                        

Everyone knows the atmospheric Hotel CaliforniaNew Kid In Town is laid-back, melodic rock balladry and the solid Life In The Fast Lane is The Eagles having learnt to rock out, stadium-style. Wasted Time is very much like some of the material on Don Henley’s solo albums. Victim Of Love is a muscular but catchy mid-paced rocker. Both Pretty Maids All In A Row and Try And Love Again are big, powerful rock ballads once more. The latter has Randy Meisner on lead vocals, the former features Joe Walsh. This is classic rock as opposed to country rock. The final track, The Last Resort, is a sublime slow romantic ballad, well sung by Don Henley. It is my favourite on the album.

Look, this album is undoubtedly an album that will be remembered as a classic of its genre, but whether it is an actual, bona fide classic is debatable. It is a short album of very listenable, immaculately played rock songs, but does it amount to an album of copper-bottomed classics? Probably not, in my opinion, but there you go. Nothing makes you think “wow”. On the other hand, you can’t deny it has something, particularly the opening and closing tracks. However many times you hear the title track, it always has that atmosphere to it. Overall, though, I prefer the more raw, unpolished feel of their earlier albums.

The Long Run (1979)

The Eagles, darlings of the mid-seventies, fell as the unfortunate victims of the dual attack of punk and disco, their brand of hard-edged country rock holding no truck in the febrile musical zeitgeist of 1977-80. They embodied everything punk railed against. Personally, I think it is a good album but it meant nothing to me in 1979 and that was the point. It sounds good in retrospect but at the time many were not too interested (in the UK, it went to number one in the US, of course). Certainly it was not a favourite with the critics, keen to write the band off as has-beens and yesterday's men. The backlash against the runaway success of Hotel California had well and truly begun. Not only did "disco suck" but The Eagles sucked too. As a punk-new wave fan at the time, it is a source of regret to me how much good music I rejected - as the years have progressed my blinkers have been put away.

It is a slightly "darker" album than their others, although maybe this conception is fuelled by the white on black, minimalist dull front and rear covers. Why it could almost be Joy Division.

The Long Run is possibly The Eagles' last great hard-rocking classic and it gets the album off to the perfect, rousing start. However, this upbeat mood is soon tempered by I Can't Tell You Why, whose laid-back ambience (after a promising intro) reminds me of The Bee Gees' How Deep Is You Love. Get the picture? This was as easy-listening as the band had ever got. Timothy B. Schmidt's smooth, unthreatening vocal didn't help, either. In The City's mid-pace rock strains gets things back up again, it is a solid rock song with chunky riffs and a fine Joe Walsh vocal. It was featured in the cult 1979 film The Warriors.

Not a lover of disco, Don Henley tries to cynically take on the much-maligned genre on The Disco Strangler, a surprisingly good song which utilises a disco guitar riff but is pretty much rock all the way. It is a bit of an underrated gem, short as though it is. 
King Of Hollywood is an appealing, low-key brooding number, featuring some hard-hitting, wry lyrics about the Hollywood "casting couch". It is a superb song, one of the band's best, for me. The other big hit from the album (even in the UK), along with The Long Run, was Glenn Frey's excellent rocker, Heartache Tonight. It seemed to be all over the radio in 1979, not everything was The Police, Elvis Costello or The Jam

A reassuringly chunky rocker is the slow groove of Those Shoes, featuring some great wah-wah guitar, throbbing bass and infectious cymbal work. Teenage Jail is a strangely intoxicating, menacing number that almost has a post punk miserableness about it in places. It suddenly breaks out at the end into the lively rock of The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks - a witty sideswipe (apparently) at the "Greek" "frathouse" thing. No? Me neither. It is a fun track though, with some decidedly glammy drums at the end. The closer, Don Henley's evocative ballad The Sad CafĂ© has many hints as to the direction his solo material would take. Legendary saxophonist David Sanborn (Young Americans, Ian Hunter's All American Boy) adds some excellent alto on the track too.

I really like this album, in many ways  consider it the group' best album, certainly outdoing its illustrious predecessor. The critics have dealt it an unfair undeserved hand, in my opinion, there are numerous unflattering reviews out there, so I am changing things - it was a good album.

Long Road Out Of Eden (2007)

This album, recorded thirteen years since their previous one, is a sprawling, way, way too long double album containing an hour and a half's blatantly retrospective Eagles music. It is full of jangling riffs and those trademark freeway driving vocals - AOR rockers and AOR ballads and it seems as if the band had never been away. Can I trawl through it, analysing in detail track after track of generically-similar music? No, I guess not. It is suffice to say that I can dip into any of this album at any time and thoroughly enjoy it. The sound quality is uniformly excellent and the band, often at each others' throats over the years, sound as if they really enjoyed recording it. 

Roughly, the album can be separated by its two CDs - the first recalling the smooth country rock of the seventies while the second looks back, sonically, to the eighties and has many vibes of Don Henley's The End Of The Innocence album. This is only to an extent, though, because much of the second half of the first part is also distinctly eighties-style Henley-esque.

There are highlights worthy of individual mention, however. How Long has an obviously Take It Easy riff and melody to it and is classic Eagles fare. The appealing Busy Being Fabulous is a track that would have fitted fine on the afore-mentioned Don Henley album, The End Of The Innocence. Guilty Of the Crime is a great, upbeat riffy grinder. A favourite of mine is the Springsteen-esque (in places) No More Cloudy Days

Do Something is beautiful, as is I Don’t Want To Hear Any More. The ten-minute Long Road Out Of Eden is a chugging, mightily impressive Jackson Browne-influenced cynical diatribe about the state of the world and the USA in 2007. I Dreamed There Was No War is a lovely, short guitar instrumental and Somebody has a gritty rocking thump to it. Frail Grasp On The Big Picture is another socially motivated number, with strong echoes of Life In The Fast Lane to it. The Last Good Time In Town has a laid-back Chris Rea sound to its rhythm. Look, I could compliment each and every track on here - they are all good, not a duffer anywhere to be found.

Check out some of Don Henley's fine solo work here :-

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)

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 Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon 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)

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 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. 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)

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 StopAll 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.

Related posts :-
Bob Dylan
The Eagles
Elton John