Written for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
In the late 60s, nearly every group was concerned with its look as it was its music. Mark Farner of Grand Funk was instantly recognizable because of his bare chest and lion’s mane of hair – ditto Led Zep’s Robert Plant. David Crosby had his walrus moustache and Buffalo Bill Cody jacket; Arthur Brown, singer of the incendiary hit “Fire,” wore outfits that were flame retardant; and Paul Revere and the Raiders played up their name by dressing up as colonial soldiers. As for David Bowie…Well, we’re still not quite sure what the alien look was all about…
Then there was “The Band,” comprised of four scruffy Canadians (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson) and the son of a dirt poor Arkansas farmer (Levon Helm). They were multi instrumentalists: Manuel played piano, drums, organ, and sax; Helm drums, mandolin, guitar, and bass; Danko bass, guitar, trombone and fiddle; Robertson, guitar and piano, and Hudson was adept at organ, piano, sax, synthesizer, and accordion. They looked like their music – rustic and grizzled, like some faded sepia photo taken by Matthew Brady. They may have been 4/5 Canadian, but their music embraced the roots of the American South – folk, country, blues, rock and R& B. They sang songs about the Depression, the Civil War, and sitting on the back porch with the kinfolk. In an age when songs were drenched with seven minute guitar solos and overt drug references, these guys told stories. There was nothing like them on the airwaves; their closet contemporary was storyteller Gordon Lightfoot – another Canadian. How ironic that Americans were learning about their country from musicians born north of the border.
The Band had the pedigree too. They’d started out in the early 60s in Toronto as the back up group for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who’d charted with a raucous cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” Hudson, the oldest and most experienced performer, was reluctant to join the band of hellions because his parents wanted him to be a music teacher. The group solved its predicament by paying Hudson ten bucks a week to serve as their music teacher. By 1963 the group had tired of backing Hawkins, a tough task master who disdained marijuana (it was after all, illegal), but seemed to have no problem with excessive alcohol and speed. Striking out on their own as Levon and The Hawks, they happened upon Bob Dylan, who was itching to give his folk act a harder edge. The Band electrified the stage, but many of Dylan’s fans revolted, booing their joint performances and calling the nasal one “Judas” for forsaking his roots. Levon was so bummed by the experience he temporarily quit the group, giving the drum seat up to Mickey Jones, who later became the time keeper for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. Levon eventually returned to the fold, and The Band played on…
We have a motorcycle to thank for the emergence of The Band in July 1966. Bob Dylan was badly injured in a motorcycle accident, and spent his convalescence in Woodstock, New York, fooling around with The Hawks in the basement of his home. (The tapes from their sessions would be released as the overrated “Basement Tapes.”) Rehearsing without Dylan, his employees quickly realized they were better off without their vocally challenged leader. They entered the studio to record their own material but still didn’t have a name. Feeling they’d outgrown the Levon and The Hawks moniker they considered names they felt reflected their democratic brotherhood. They toyed with “The Honkies” and “The Crackers,” but Capitol, their record label, wisely rejected the names. Memories are foggy now as to how the group picked its name. It may have been the suits at Capitol or it may have been Richard Manuel, who when asked what his group was called replied in jest, “The Band…Just The Band.”
Released in 1968, The Band’s first album, “Music From Big Pink,” (named in honor of the house they rehearsed and lived in), was a critically acclaimed success, containing staples such as “The Weight,” “I Shall Be Released,” and “This Wheel’s On Fire.” It was influential enough to put a stake in the heart of psychedelia and convinced Eric Clapton to quit Cream and go on tour with roots rockers Delaney and Bonnie. Clapton was so enamored of The Band’s rural sound he wanted to join the group. With the release of their self-titled second album in 1969, The Band went from curiosities to bona fide backwoods stars.
Nearly every cut on the “brown” album is a Band classic. Sure, there’s a much better version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on the “Rock of Ages” album, but at this point no one even knew there was going to be a live Band album. Levon sings “Dixie” with a bit too much nose and throat, resembling an Arkansas Dylan, which ain’t that pleasing to the ear. Bless his drumsticks it’s a tone he seldom used.
The album is as rich with images of flim flam men, carnies, droughts, floods, grifters, drifters, loose women and the hard drinking men that love them. “The Band” is a forty minute history lesson -- America set to music.
As with the first album, Richard Manuel is the first and last voice you hear. He opens with “Across the Great Divide,” a tale of no nonsense, pistol packin’ Molly and her man, who remains optimistic their luck will change (“Try and understand your man the best you can.”) Typical of the band’s most memorable songs, it features Manuel’s pounding Fats Domino piano as part of its underpinnings, robust horns from Garth Hudson and producer John Simon, and a descriptive, easy-to-sing-along chorus: “Across the great divide, just grab your hat and take that ride. Get yourself a bride, and bring your children down to the riverside.”
The most astonishing performance comes from the already troubled Manuel, who nearly cries his way through “Whispering Pines.” A deceptively talented pianist, early in the band’s career Manuel was every bit the composer Robbie Robertson was. He just wasn’t as prolific and that seemed to gnaw at him, as did his inability to express himself in words. By the second album, he was already relying on Robertson to help him draft his lyrics. His frustrations as a songwriter would lead him to shut down completely by the time “Cahoots,” their fourth album, came out.
“Whispering Pines” features a droning, understated lick on the piano by Manuel, who purposely knocked it out of tune so it would give his playing a more desperate texture. Manuel sings in an impossible falsetto that further captures the ache in his heart: “Foghorn through the night, calling out to sea. Protect my only light, ‘cause she once belonged to me. Let the waves rush in, let the seagulls cry. For if I live again, these hopes will never die. I can feel you standing there, but I don’t see you anywhere.”
“Whispering Pines” is an early cry for help from a truly tortured soul who finally took his own life to end his suffering. He sounds hopelessly adrift against the waves of Garth Hudson’s organ, even toward the end of the song, when Levon Helm’s counter vocal reaches out to try and guide him to shore. It’s unbelievable that no one in the group could figure out how far gone this guy already was.
If Manuel was the group’s dramatic voice and chief balladeer, then Helm was The Band’s Goodtime Charlie, the one who seemed to be enjoying his lifestyle and the music the most. “Rag Mama Rag” is one of The Band’s best toe-tappin’ classics, a vehicle for Garth Hudson’s Dixieland piano rolls and Rick Danko’s dead on Doug Kershaw Cajun fiddle playing. Richard Manuel chips in on drums, providing the loopy, topsy turvy beat. The mood is cheeky and playful with Levon taking on the role of a hayseed Romeo sniffing around for some afternoon delight: “Rag mama rag, now where do you roam? Rag mama rag, bring your skinny little body back home. Well its dog eat dog and cat eat mouse, you can rag mama rag all over my house.”
Levon revisits his roguish side in “Jemima Surrender,” a nonsensical sideshow of double entendres directed at a potential conquest: “Jemima surrender, I’m gonna give it to you, ain’t no pretender gonna sleeve my tattoo. I hand you my rod and you hand me that line (every time), that’s what you do, and through we ain’t doin’ much fishin’ or drinkin’ any wine. Sweet Jemima if I were a king, I’d fix you up with a diamond ring.” The music is handled by the Band’s “B” team: Instead of Helm on the drums, its Manuel whacking out an ad hoc country stomp, as Hudson (who doubles on piano) and John Simon back Levon’s sly vocal inflections with Madi Gras horns, while Robertson steps up to provide a snappy Carl Perkins-like solo. “Jemima Surrender” has the same loafing guitar intro as Shocking Blue’s “Mighty Joe” (the follow up to “Venus”), but no, it’s not a love song to the lady on the pancake box.
Perhaps Levon’s finest moment in The Band is “Up On Cripple Creek.” The group’s only hit single, it reached #25 on the charts in November 1969. Its success is even more of a surprise when you factor in the group’s lack of enthusiasm for the song. Early takes are lethargic, later ones are hurried, as if the boys wanted to catch the next crop duster out of Cripple Creek. It wasn’t until they hillbillied it up with a few “he-he’s” and added a make-shift Jew’s harp that the boys began to have fun with it and finally nailed a take. Hudson’s “Jew’s Harp” that ends the choruses is actually a clavinet run through a wah-wah pedal. The thick bottom provided by Levon’s drums and Rick’s bass coats the arrangement in a Motown meets the Ozarks vibe. The Band’s most recognizable tune, “Up On Cripple Creek” is stuffed with good time imagery – there’s Spike Jones “on the box” (jukebox), the hefty, forgiving mistress (Miss Bessie), and sketchy activities (betting on the ponies).
Danko gets a rare opportunity to sing a pair of songs, perpetrating his best Buddy Holly hiccup and rubber band bass during the bouncy “Look Out Cleveland,” and adopting a Winwood-esque choir boy vocal in “Unfaithful Servant.” Buried amidst the brilliance of Manuel’s performances on “The Band,” “Unfaithful Servant” would become a defining moment for Danko on the live “Rock Of Ages.”
In giving perhaps his greatest performance in “Whispering Pines,” Manuel nails three other performances that on the album that affirm Helm and Danko’s claim that he was the real lead singer of The Band. The mandolins pluck happily and Hudson’s accordion hums like a finely tuned Model T in “Rockin’ Chair,” a back porch ballad about an old salt longing to retire and return home to live a simple life with his family in Virginia. Manuel laces his baritone with a sense of longing that draws you in and makes you sympathize with his character, who knows his life is just about used up: “Slow down, Willie Boy, your heart’s gonna give right out on you. It’s true, and I believe I know what we should do. Turn the stern and point to shore, these seven seas won’t carry us no more. Oh, to be home again, way down in old Virginny, with my very best friend, they call him ragtime Willie. I can’t wait to sniff that air, dip’n snuff I won’t have no cares, that big rockin’ chair won’t go now where.”
Manuel takes a pass at playing the rogue in “Jawbone,” only his career criminal character is more focused on money than women – “I’m a thief and I dig it!” Robertson’s rips out one of his knife-like solos and Helm’s crisp pock shot drumming guides the others through some tricky time changes. Manuel and Robertson continue to show a talent for Depression era lingo: “Pull of a job with an inside man, who needs the cash and likes your plan. And you know just who to thank, when you land right back in the tank!”
Next to his lovesick loner in “Whispering Pines” (which is too close to the bone to be anyone but Manuel himself), his portrayal of a dirt poor dust bowl farmer in the album’s closer “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” is one of his most riveting characters. When Manuel’s voice rises, pleading to the skies (“Please let these crops grow tall!”) or takes stock of his wretched financial situation (“Long enough I’ve been on skid row, and it’s plain to see I’ve got nothin’ to show), the conviction in his voice will propel you back to the 30s when banks foreclosed on farms and too many Americans were transients. It’s one of Robertson’s all time great compositions highlighted Manuel’s frantic farmer, Danko’s fretless fingering, and frenzied guitar work from Robertson that sounds as if they stuck his hands in a bees nest. Take note of Levon’s muffled drumming during the revved up ending. He sounds as if he’s having a punch out with drum set. The reason for the deadened beat is the kit itself. Instead of plastic or metal drums, Levon’s kit was made of wood, like the type of drum sets more common to bands that played in the south at the turn of the 20th century.
The group’s self titled transformed the humble country gentlemen into media darlings. Their third album explored the darker side of fame…
“Stagefright” would mark the last time Richard Manuel would so clearly dominate the group’s sound. It featured his final compositions (“Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” co-authored with Robertson) and was a prominent stage for his grieving falsetto and smooth baritone. The lyrics were darker, more threatening, and there was more emphasis on soloing rather than ensemble singing, but at this point, the changes were all for the better.
Next to “Whispering Pines” and the live version of “King Harvest (Will Surely Come),” “Sleeping” is one of Manuel’s finest turns at the mike. His voice is velvet, as if he’s exhaling after an exhilarating experience. If Manuel couldn’t find peace on earth, at least he still felt comfort in his dreams: “The storm is passed, there’s peace at last. I’ll spend my whole life sleeping. Now there’s not a sound, no one to be found, anywhere. The shepherd and his sheep, will wind you to sleep. Where else on earth would you wanna go? To a land of wonder, when you go under. Why would we want to come back at all?” Robertson tears off an economical solo that builds to a screaming attack as the rest of The Band rumbles like a musical mad train speeding through a daydream.
Manuel’s surprise performance is “The Shape I’m In,” in which he shows crooners can sing up-tempo rockers too. He sings with fervor, as if he knows the lyrics mirror his own life: “Out of nine lives, I spent seven, now how in the world do you get to heaven? Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in.” With Manuel shifting over to clavinet instead of his usual percussive piano, the music is carried by Levon’s lashing beat and Danko’s thick bass thumps. The Band weren’t known for their dance tunes, but “The Shape I’m In” will make you bob your head and stamp your feet. Besides, you have to smile at any song that rhymes “ruckus” with “shuck us.”
Manuel goes to Bible class in “Daniel and the Scared Harp,” a tale of avarice. Levon serves as narrator for tune, which is as pointed as an episode of “Davey and Goliath,” but makes up for it with some savvy sawing from Danko on the fiddle (what, no harp?) and his complimentary burping bass.
Danko sounds appropriately petrified on the title track, his only lead vocal on the album. He joins Manuel on the punchy “Time To Kill.” The two singers trade more quips than Hope and Crosby in one of their road pictures. If ever there was a Band song that could be called cute, this is it, but the playful nature of the lyrics works because Richard and Rick sound as natural as two guys sipping a couple of beers and bragging about their girlfriends.
If you want a glimpse at how versatile The Band could be, look no further than “Strawberry Wine,” the opening track Helm co-authored with Robertson. A Saturday night barn dance knee-slapper, it was recorded in one take with Richard Manuel on drums. Manuel’s unorthodox, slap-at-it-anyway-you can style of drumming, gives the song the reckless abandon it needs. Hudson squeezes out some hillbilly/Swiss coloring on accordion and Helm and Robertson prop up the rhythm on guitars, but it’s Danko who does the soloing, popping out bass lines like a pea-pickin’ Larry Graham. Levon is in full redneck, twangin’ out his devotion to a no-good buddy: “I would try my fanger (finger), and I would try my hand, at any fool game in this man’s land. But don’t you go talkin’ ‘bout this-here friend of mine. I ain’t never been let down, and you’d be wastin’ time.”
The Band were master magicians at giving their audience pleasant and unexpected surprises, and Helm’s tender vocal on the spare “All La Glory” is a key example. Helm scores as well in Manuel’s territory as Manuel did singing the rockin’ “The Shape I’m In.” Helm’s wizened vocal is wrapped around a lullaby arrangement, buttered by soft asides from Manuel on organ that paint Levon in the guise of a backwoods Burl Ives or a musical Wilfred Brimley, (although he’s far less cranky). It’s definitely cryin’ time material for anybody with young children.
The group members were also experts at leaving a good impression by ending an album with a memorable song. “The Rumor” compacts many of their strong points: all three singers get a few lines to vocalize, with Manuel raising the bar each time he enters until he sounds like a minister who’s just been tapped on the shoulder by God and now knows the secret of life. Danko’s gutty bass introduces the wistful arrangement, with Manuel chording delicately on piano, Robertson adding a terse solo and Honey Boy Hudson blessing it all on organ. When Manuel reaches for – and hits – his final notes, you’ll feel cleansed.
The back story of “Stagefright” involved the different mixes by engineers Todd Rundgren and Glyn Johns. After listening to Rundgren’s rougher, more raw mix, the group chose to release Johns’ richer mix.
If you need a point of reference where things started to go wrong for The Band, 1971’s “Cahoots” is it. It remains one of my favorite albums, despite a few very surprisingly uneven spots, but the division of labor is telling. Richard Manuel’s immersion in Grand Marnier coincided with his talent as a songwriter drying up; he would never write a song for The Band again. As a result, Robbie Robertson took on the role of chief songwriter at a time when he was also running low on ideas, relying on the group’s fall back crutch of adapting a Dylan song and taking some of the heat off of the group by adding guest artists, in this case Allen Toussaint and Van Morrison. All three singers were rapidly becoming party zombies, which would put a crimp in anyone’s recording process. Although their voices were still strong, there were fewer tunes featuring The Band’s trademark homespun harmonies, a sure sign their brotherhood was crumbling.
Toussaint’s brand of feel-good New Orleans party music makes its presence known in the lead track, “Life Is A Carnival.” The celebratory horns prop up the three singer’s harmonies and dance with Robertson’s hoochy-coochie guitar lick. But the real star is the vocal interplay, and Robertson’s astute observations that compare life to a side show: “You can walk on the water, drown in the sand, you can fly off a mountaintop if anybody can. Fly away, fly away – it’s the restless age, look away, look away, you can turn the page. Hey buddy, would you like to buy a watch real cheap, here on the street? I got six on each arm and tow more around my feet. Life is a carnival – believe it or not. Life is a carnival – two bits a shot.” The working relationship the group established with Toussaint not only produced the album’s most radio friendly cut, it also laid the groundwork for the master of horn charts to serve a major role on their next album.
The trio of singers were all in the studio at the same time to record “Shootout In Chinatown.” The lyrics, about the Chinese underworld in San Francisco would be considered non P.C. today, but it’s a treat to hear the three tiered harmonies (“Streets were wide open, till the break of dawn, was ‘Frisco in it’s heyday”) followed by Richard poking in with whispered asides (“Imported from Hong Kong.”). And Hudson gets flourishes on the keys, recreating the traditional background music of Chinatown.
Toussaint’s horn charts tightened “Life Is A Carnival”’s arrangement; Van Morrison’s contribution to “4% Pantomime” turned it into one of the sloppiest, most spontaneous and joyful songs The Band ever recorded. A throwback to the juke joint rambles the group performed as Levon and The Hawks, 4% Pantomime” tells the story of a drunken poker-playing get together between “The Belfast Cowboy” (Morrison’s inner party boy) and “Richard,” who never acquired or needed an alternate party persona. (He was the party.) The coupling of the hard-drinking Irishman and the major-league self-abusing Manuel had all the earmarks of a disaster – especially when the tape began rolling and it was obvious most of the singers – and the players – had already taken the song’s party atmosphere to heart. But the booze only fueled Morrison’s ability to roar like the King of the recording booth, and Manuel, spurred on by Morrison’s competitiveness, out sings him while pounding the piano like another Richard -- Little Richard. The others may well be in awe in the background, but add brilliant touches. When Manuel laments the loss of a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, (“And smashed it on a rock and wept…”) Levon apes the sound of a crashing bottle on his cymbal; and as the party fades out, there’s Honey Boy Hudson, sweetening the final chords on organ.
The group’s cover of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is anything but. Accordions should be banned from use in any situations relating to music except Italian weddings. Hudson’s Parisian squeezing and Levon’s reverent delivery aside, this is a Dylan dog. I know The Band always felt they owed Bob a debt for hiring them and hanging out with him in his basement, but I‘ve always felt the man with the bad adenoids held them back, and this is proof. Sometimes even great lyricists overload their songs with too many hard to fathom syllables. The only thing that would make this any worse is an appearance by Bobby Zimmerman himself.
Richard Manuel’s main strength was as a balladeer, although “The Shape I’m In” showed he had the ability to keep his baritone on track at a faster tempo. “Last of The Blacksmiths” is something else altogether, an obscure, preachy, finger-pointing indictment about machines taking the humanity out of mankind: “Have mercy, cried the blacksmith, how you gonna replace human hands? Found guilty, said the judge, for not being in demand.” Manuel’s rich and desperate tone counteracts the otherwise obtuse meaning of the rest of the lyrics, and Hudson’s instrumental break adds a downright sinister tone. Not one of the group’s shining moments, but thanks to their conviction and commitment, it deserves to be heard. Manuel returns to his trademark vocal ache on the ballad “The Moon Struck One,” the tale of a trio of young friends that ends tragically. The way Manuel drops his voice at the end of each verse is a seminar on how to draw more emotion from a lyric.
Rick Danko, the group’s forgotten vocalist, pulls duty on the playful “Thinkin’ Out Loud,” and another environmental soapbox platform, “Where Do We Go From Here?” which laments the loss of the American eagle, the buffalo and the railway. Robertson later said he regretted not spending more time on the song’s structure, but it sounds complete to me. The strong harmonies between Manuel, Helm and Danko, (even if they are only singing “La, la, la”), show the depth of their abilities to work as a team and make what might have been an average song sound like an anthem.
Danko’s Buddy Holly hiccup delivery serves him best in “Volcano,” in which Robertson’s narrator, playing the role of a horny country boy, let’s his mischievous spirit run amuck: “I’d be your bushwhacker, even be your highjacker, keep your candle burning bright. When we cross that railroad track, there’ll be no turning back, come tread softly through the night.” Hudson adds a lascivious sax solo and Robertson bursts in and out with teasing solos. A good-natured goof, it’s one of the few songs to effectively use the word “bushwhacker.”
If “Stagefright” was Manuel’s album, then “Cahoots” is Levon’s. He’s saddled with the lead on the D list Dylan junk art “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” but boosts the legitimacy of the antebellum cotton pickin’ imagery in “River Hymn”’ through his twang alone. Robertson’s lyrics may lay it on as thick as a ce-ment pond full of grits, but Levon’s down-home delivery is full of a genuine appreciation of the God-fearing, church on Sundays lifestyle and respect for the life giving powers of the river. “River Hymn” serves as a reverent ending that shows The Band still knew how to tell a story.
Levon’s signature tune on “Cahoots” is the unnerving “Smoke Signal,” Robertson’s strongest, most coherent composition on the album that uses the old west settler’s fear of the Indians to parallel present day paranoia. Levon let’s his Arkansas accent loose, snapping out the lyrics like John Brown rallying the abolitionists: “Went to the movie matinee, to see the blue coats try to git away, from a smoke signal (above the trees), a smoke signal (shiftin’ in the breeze). Some folks think it’s make believe, other folks ain’t so naive, about a smoke signal (can see it comin’), a smoke signal (hear the drums drummin’). You don’t believe what you read in the paper, you don’t believe the stranger at your door. You don’t believe what you hear from your neighbor, your neighborhood ain’t even there no more.” Richard Manuel pounds and slaps at the drums like a renegade on the warpath as Hudson dances on the keys as if he was a madman with a hotfoot, while Robertson fires off laser gun solos. It’s an eerie, apocalyptic tune that’s worth price of sitting through “When I Paint My Masterpiece” to get to.
By the end of 1971, Robertson knew his creative well was dry. The group was often impatient or listless in the studio anyway. But on stage they never failed to give a good account of their catalogue. So why not record a few live shows on the most festive night of the year (New Year’s Eve, in case your guessing) and satisfy their record contract at the same time? The result was…
Rock of Ages
Original CD Release (4 ½ out of 5 stars)
Remastered version with Bob Dylan’s Intrusion (3 ½ out of 5)
To flesh out the group’s sound, Robbie Robertson contacted Allen Toussaint to write out some horn charts. Toussaint took his responsibilities seriously, hiring five of New York’s premier horn men, Howard Johnson, Snooky Young, Earl McIntyre, J.D. Parron and Joe Farrell. The result was like throwing gasoline on a brush fire…The tunes burned with a newfound passion.
The group stuck with its tried and true stage show, adding a few twists. There were two covers included in the set both sung by Levon, the opener, Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” and the closer, Chuck Willis’, “I Don’t Want to Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes.” (The remastered version of the CD includes a cover of the 4 Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” sung by Danko.) “Don’t Do It” begins with Danko’s robust stretching of his fretless bass and windy bursts from the horn section. Richard Manuel punishes the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis trying to break into a girl’s school, and Robertson revs up a blistering guitar solo. Manuel pounds out a spirited solo during his give and take with the horn section during “Rock and Roll Shoes” as the horns punctuate Levon’s battle cry: “No…NO…NO! I don’t want to, hang up my rock and roll shoes. My feet start-a-movin’ every time I hear the blues.”
Toussaint’s assertive horn section even covers classic songs with a fresh coat of paint. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is introduced with a lone trumpet solo that recalls a soldier blowing taps at sunset, apt imagery given the song’s subject matter. Helm gives one of his most stirring performances, nearly growling during the choruses as the horns crest, spurring him on. As the only true southerner in a group, Helm about the hardships below the Mason-Dixon, having lived through many of them. Helm hot wires his emotions into the song’s tragic “Gone With Wind” plot. I acknowledged the brilliance of the song before I heard the live version (and Joan Baez’s 4-F version), but couldn’t visualize the character’s suffering. After hearing it on “Rock Of Ages” even I was convinced the South got a raw deal during Reconstruction.
Before Levon can exhale, Richard Manuel glides in with the first line of “Across The Great Divide.” Manuel gets involved in his performance as well, jabbing vocally with the rise and fall of the horn section, regulating his voice with surprise when he sings, “Now tell me hon, whatcha done with the gun?” The applause for the “Dixie/Divide” medley is deafening and well deserved.
Manuel’s peak performance is “King Harvest (Is Surely Come),” originally the concluding gem from “The Band” album. It seems unlikely that there could be any improvement on the original, but the moment Manuel launches into his vocal, the words issuing from his lips as if his throat was laced with hot lead, its obvious Richard is in the moment. The way he delivers the lines “Last year this time, it wasn’t no joke, my whole barn went up in smoke!” will leave you believing he lived a previous life as an indigent farmer. Matching Manuel’s passion, Robertson song ending guitar solo smolders, burns then explodes as he flays at the strings. If you ever doubted why this group was called The Band, listen to this.
Thanks to Toussaint’s horn army, many other familiar tunes receive a jolt of energy. Manuel sounds a little off his game at the beginning of “The Shape I’m In,” but soon falls in line and is barking out the lyrics with been-there believability; “Life Is A Carnival” is worth the price of admission when the horns cloak it in Barnum and Bailey grandeur; and the previously whiney “Caledonia Mission” bursts with confidence.
Rick Danko’s boyish pleading in “Unfaithful Servant” injects the tune with raw emotion and Garth Hudson’s reedy solo conjures up pictures of ostentatious parlors and bustles, while Robertson adds to the tension with one of his more expressive solos. Two other tunes, “Chest Fever,” and “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show” are so transformed by the infusion of the horn section that sound like new songs. “W.S.” was a slow funky hillbilly hayride on “Stagefright.” On “Rock Of Ages,” the horns poke and dance within the arrangement, coating the song with a festive feel. “Chest Fever” busts out of the blocks at nearly three times the speed of the original ponderous version on “Big Pink,” and is a great set up for the equally active “I Don’t Want to (Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes)” that follows.
The remastered version added a second CD that answered the question what happened to the live versions of “Rockin’ Chair,” “Upon On Cripple Creek,” “Lovin’ You Is Sweeter,” “I Shall Be Released,” and “Time To Kill?” They’re here. It doesn’t take a trained ear to figure out why some were of these takes were left out. Danko and Manuel get a little tangled up in “Time To Kill” momentarily tripping over Levon’s too-rapid beat and Danko flubs a line. “Up On Cripple Creek” is so sluggish it should have been called “Up On Crippled Creek.” Manuel’s normally velveteen voice is way off base when he makes his fist entrance during “The Rumor,” and Robertson claws out an inept solo, turning “The Rumor” into bad news. But one has to wonder why in the world Manuel is still trying to sing “I Shall Be Released” in the same impossible falsetto it was recorded in. It was a bad idea to do it that way in the studio (where you can do as many takes as it takes) because there was no way he could hit those notes on stage. Too bad the old Four Tops staple “Loving You Is Sweeter” was omitted; Danko gulps out a credible vocal and Helm’s back up is both brisk and ferocious (and louder than Danko’s, which may be a reason they soured on it ). The same can be said of “Rockin’ Chair;” in which Manuel gives a strong performance and the harmonies are solid.
As for the inclusion of Bob Dylan on the remastered version – somebody owes me 20 minutes of my life back. To have to sit through one Dylan foghorn fest is one thing, to hold back lunch through four tunes as he envelopes the crowd with his greased fart in the wind vocal chords warrants a Medal of Honor. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The guy’s a great songwriter, but his voice qualifies as a weapon of mass destruction. Play his music over a loud speaker in Iraq and our troops will be home on the next plane.
There are very few tunes that don’t work live, whether it’s an unwise tempo change or one of the singers’s temporarily drowning in the horns. I understand that Garth Hudson is the group’s overlooked MVP, but it’s bad enough that I had to sit through his eight minute impression of a mad monk at the keyboards whenever I saw The Band in concert – I shouldn’t have to do it in the comfort of my bedroom too, not when his wasted minutes could have been used for other tunes that were omitted altogether, such as one of the few live recordings of “Smoke Signal.”
The release of the stellar live set “Rock of Ages” in 1972 was followed a year later by “Moondog Matinee.” The high quality of the performances masked the fact that The Band hadn’t produced any new material in four years. Rampant substance abuse had turned the musicians into car crashing, heroin snorting party animals who made more headlines in the police blotter than on stage. In order to rekindle the creative fires, Robertson decided it was time for a change of scenery…
The Band relocated to Malibu for their seventh album, setting up shop in Sammy Davis’ house. (The cool one was not in residence, babe.) Robertson’s muse returned, but Richard, Levon and Rick’s thirst for drugs and drink had been merely transported, rather than extinguished. When the group moved Manuel out of Davis’ pool house and into the studio, it took two days to remove the empty bottles of Grand Marnier.
Despite the distractions, the resultant album, 1975’s “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” was an astonishing comeback. Robertson employed some new studio tricks to freshen up the group’s sound. On past albums Manuel, Danko and Helm had recorded their vocals together. Now they were recorded separately. The company line was it gave the singers the chance to rehearse and hone their vocals, but it was as much a concession to their social schedules as anything else. Hudson also took advantage of the studio’s 24-tracks, layering his keyboards. Improved technology made the instruments and vocals sound crisp; but critics complained it removed the warm, woodsy sound of the group, making them sound less sincere and more mechanical. There were few complaints about the material, however. The grifters and drifters in Robertson’s new songs were as fully realized as Daniel and his sacred harp, Miss Bessie from Cripple Creek, or The Belfast Cowboy.
Robertson bent and reversed his guitar intro to “Forbidden Fruit” until it sounded like a Model T cranking up; the slow wind up serving as a metaphor for The Band’s music starting up again. When Levon struts onto the scene, he’s no longer the fun loving redneck of the past. Now he’s an experienced, somewhat jaded country boy trying to make it in the big city: “I am lonesome out on Times Square, haven’t got a dime, ain’t got a prayer…” Robertson’s guitar crackles and Levon’s sticks hit his snare like tobacco juice splattering against a steaming Georgia pavement, but the most noticeable difference in The Band’s sound is Hudson’s accompaniment. The creaky Lowry organ has been replaced by synthesizers and other keyboards that sound more modern and are mixed forward.
“Forbidden Fruit”s Sodom and Gomorrah storyline harkens back to Robertson’s descriptive songs on “Stagefright” and “The Band,” and serves notice that Robertson has regained his Aesop touch. The only negative about Robertson’s rebirthed creative process is that he seems to love “Forbidden Fruit’s” streetwise appeal so much he reuses the arrangement for “Ring Your Bell.” While Levon carries “the weight” of the vocals for “Forbidden Fruit;” the three singers trade lines on “Ring Your Bell.” It pulls fewer punches than it’s musical cousin “Forbidden Fruit,” portraying the boys as rebellious hot rodders (Richard: “Smoky bars and souped up cars” Rick: “Where we drowned all sorrow,” Levon” Renegade woman, love me like there’s no tomorrow left to borrow.”)
Each of the singers is rewarded with a signature tune. For Richard, it’s “Hobo Jungle,” a piano occupied ballad that he wraps his still strapping baritone around like a warm fire. By most accounts Manuel was unaware of the effect of his voice; on “Hobo Jungle” it’s saturated with regret: “There was a chill that night, in the hobo jungle. Over the train yard lay a smooth coat of frost. And although nobody here knows where they’re going, at the very same time, nobody’s lost.”
Lascivious Levon takes on the role of the dapper party boy who loses “Ophelia,” but still appreciates the fun they’ve had together. The jump tune on an album of reflective material, “Ophelia” gets a boost from Robertson’s chicken picking and Hudson’s swing horns. Another upbeat track is “Jupiter Hollow,” which puts Levon and Richard together on the drums. The two percussionists provide a Clydesdale clip-clop beat that sets up Hudson’s whistling warm-breeze synthesizer, successfully framing Robertson’s fairy tale lyrics.
Rick Danko’s heartbreaking vocal on the “Rock of Ages” version of “Unfaithful Servant” proved that Rick could please, but with Richard and Levon around, he’d always be picking up the scraps. The tear-jerking “It Makes No Difference” is one of Danko’s finest moments as a lead singer. His voice strains with emotion, his heart breaking more and more with each syllable as he barely chokes back the tears: “It makes no difference, where I turn, I can’t get over you and the flame still burns. It makes no difference, night or day, the shadow never seems to fade away. And the sun don’t shine, anymore. And the rains fall down on my door.” Hudson’s lonesome sax, Manuel and Helm’s cascading vocals and Robertson’s trilling guitar add to the song’s forlorn mood, but its Danko’s wailing that makes a difference.
The tale of persecuted Cajuns who migrated to Canada, “Arcadian Driftwood” is the type of mini history lesson The Band excelled at. You can see the shattered battlefields of the Civil War and the shivering, huddled pioneers traipsing across the snowy plains. “Driftwood” draws from the group’s major strengths: Manuel and Helm trade lines in the verses, and Danko makes his contribution during the middle eight. Add Byron Berline on fiddle for authenticity and you’ve got a song that should be added to every curriculum in North America. Richard: “The war was over and the spirit was broken, the hills were smoking as the men withdrew. We stood on the cliffs and watched the ships, slowly sink into their rendezvous. Levon: They signed a treaty and our homes were taken, loved ones forsaken, they didn’t give a damn. Try to raise a family, end up the enemy, over what went down on the Plains of Abraham.”
The album peaks with “It Makes No Difference,” but the remaining two cuts (“Jupiter Hollow” and “Rags and Bones”) exhibit storybook charm. The shuffling “Rags and Bones” is a bit of a letdown. The rapid fire John Steinbeck imagery overlaps into the music, and becomes a mouthful for Manuel, who gives a credible performance, but might as well be reading the lyrics.
“Northern Lights, Southern Cross” was viewed as the group’s comeback. It ended up being the original band’s studio swansong. A grueling tour schedule sandwiched in between car wrecks, drunken jags and a concert canceling boating accident by Manuel slowly drained the musician’s enthusiasm. They stopped touring in 1976, winding up the first part of the group’s career in style with the well intentioned “Last Waltz” concert
The Band reunited in 1983, five years after its supposed “last waltz.” The most noticeable change in the group was the absence of Robertson. Helm had stated vehemently he’d never perform with Robertson again, because he felt Robertson had cheated the others out of writing credits, and thus, royalties. Earl Cate, Helm’s nephew, first took over on guitar and was an able if somewhat hesitant replacement. (He would soon give way to Jim Weider.) Another notable change was Richard Manuel. Manuel was strong, seemingly sober, and in fine voice.
Personal aside…I had the pleasure of seeing The Band four times during their second career, (all without Robertson). At the first reunion concert Manuel was suave and smooth -- a well groomed fashion plate. He sang the majority of the songs and carried the performance, smiling and grinning at Danko and Helm. At the second concert the following year he was slightly disheveled, but still in good voice, although he sang fewer tunes. The last time I saw him in 1985 he looked and sounded haggard. His clothes were rumpled, he barely looked up from his piano and he sang only four songs, forgetting some of the words. A few months later, in the true tradition of “The show must go on,” The Band played a concert a week after Manuel had hung himself. Former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin stood in for Manuel and a girthy Rick Danko, sweating profusely, took on the monumental task of singing most of the leads. Obviously still upset over Manuel’s death (although he was at the angry stage rather than the grieving stage), Levon Helm opened the concert with “When The Battle Is Over,” singing with the intensity of a preacher convinced his flock was going to hell. He attacked, rather than played the drums, and when the battle was over, he uncharacteristically hurled his drumsticks into the crowd, barely missing my slack-jawed expression. He managed a few more tunes, but for the most part, Helm sat off to the side of second drummer Randy Ciarlante’s riser, plucking the bass. My point is, throughout the rest of The Band’s existence, even though Manuel was replaced by old pal Stan Szelest (who promptly had a heart attack and died) and another Richard (Bell), Richard Manuel remained a prominent part of the group.
There were rumors the group would reenter the studio as far back as when Manuel was still alive. The group was able to lay down a few tracks in between gigs, but could never put aside enough time to record a proper album. Just before Manuel committed suicide he cited the group’s status as “an oldies act” as a contributing factor in his escalating depression.
Seventeen years after “The Last Waltz,” The Band finally released “Jericho,” and it was well worth the wait. The only crime was that Manuel couldn’t make the trip in person. He was, however, there in spirit and on one of the album’s dozen tracks, the sleepy “Country Boy.” The slow pace of the song’s tempo and Manuel’s shaky, achy vocal further illustrate the late keyboard player’s slow decay. Although the performance bordered on pitiful, one unreleased Manuel track on the album was better than none at all. And Manuel’s influence was the focus of the previous track, the somber ballad “Too Soon Gone,” in which Danko sings a eulogy to Manuel’s memory without pointedly mentioning his name.
No one could take Manuel’s place at the mike, so Richard Bell took over on piano, with Danko and Helm splitting the vocals. Robertson had long since been replaced by Jim Weider, who took a while to find his own voice, but eventually fit the group’s roadhouse sound better than Robertson.
The energetic “Remedy” starts the album off, and it’s obvious from the first downbeat that the double drum combo of Helm and new recruit Randy Ciarlante is a new weapon in The Band arsenal. With Hudson’s overdubbed horns and Danko slapping at his bass, “Remedy” has the New Orleans bounce of one of Dr. John’s best bayou boogies.
“Jericho” remains strong with the second cut, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell," which proves once again that babbling Bob’s songs are best sung by someone else. Danko and Helm trade vocals like telekinetic twins, with Danko’s boyish voice threatening to crack with emotion and Helm’s twang making him sound as battle tested tough as Stonewall Jackson. Rick: “See them big plantations burning, can’t you hear the cracking of the whips? Smell that sweet magnolia blossom blooming, see the ghosts of the slavery ships.” Levon: Well I can hear them tribes a-moanin’, I can hear the undertaker’s bell. And I know one thing, nobody can sing, them blues like Blind Willie McTell.” The instrumental outro punctuates the new Band’s tight communication as Helm and Ciarlante crack at their kits, Wieder and Helm pluck their mandolins and Hudson’s sax becomes a wisp of smoke.
The majority of the album could nestle in with some of The Band’s best work. Although it may not be as life-changing as “The Band,” or “Stagefright,” “Jericho” outstrips “Music From Big Pink,” and “Islands,” and compared to the follow up, “High On The Hog,” it’s about eight spots up on the food chain. The group’s rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Same Thing” is a vast improvement on the original. Weider’s guitar licks sting like mad honey bees, while Helm and Ciarlante karate kick their kits. Playing independently of one another, the two drummers leave no empty spaces in the mix. (Are you listening Kreutzman/Hart?). “Same Thing” also has the unique facet of Helm’s double tracked vocal. Levon sings a line and a second Levon, recessed in the background, answers back. The affect gives “Same Thing” a surreal effect that’ll make you shiver. It’s Levon as a sexual boogey man.
As good a song writer as Bruce Springsteen is, he suffers from Dylanism – he can’t sing a lick, which is why groups like The Hollies and Manfred Mann have had such success with his songs. Springsteen sings like a man in bad need of an unplugging caloric…strain…strain…grunt. On “Jericho,” The Band takes Springsteen’s mushy “Atlantic City” and reorganizes it, putting the lead in Levon’s hands. Levon has the right amount of moxy in his voice to make you believe he’s an insider in the gambling world. Accordion notwithstanding, the relentless beat, classic chart-filling harmonies and woodsy mandolins make “Atlantic City” a good bet. The closer, “Blues Stay Away From Me,” is laconic but infinitely listenable. Levon, Rick and Randy Ciarlante saddle up to the slow, bumping arrangement like contented alley cats sitting on a fence after a fish dinner, and Hudson chips in with a relaxed sax solo.
Two other cuts, “Amazon – River of Dreams” and “Shine A Light” are a matter of taste and unlike anything The Band has done before. “Amazon,” sung by Rick Danko, would be at home on Stevie Wonder’s ergonomically appropriate “Secret of Plants” album. There are a lot of twittering birds and sounds of the jungle superimposed over a lengthy ode to the swamp lands of Brazil. “Shine A Light” has a heavy gospel influence, from Bell’s “say hallelujah” piano intro to Levon and Rick’s jubilant vocals. It’s worth a genuflection or two.
There are a couple of songs that back in the Robertson days wouldn’t have made the cut. “The Stuff You Gotta Watch” is stumbling Branson boogie, inoffensive, but beneath The Band, kinda like watching the legendary Nat King Cole sing “Cat Ballou” with Stubby Kaye. If you’re a legend, you don’t want to be singing with some anybody named Stubby. If you’re The Band, you don’t want to commit precious space to a broken down barroom jig. The title track harkens back to the strong imagery found in Robbie Robertson’s best; the plight of the southern miners is right up The Band’s coal chute. Musically, “Jericho” is as dead as a canary in coal mine. Given how locked in Levon had sounded on “Blind Willie McTell,” the previous cut, listening to the listless “Jericho” is like dropping into an unlit pit with only a few minutes of air. As for “Move To Japan” -- it should have gone up with Hiroshima. It’s supposed to be a tribute to the Far East, but pokes a bit of nasty fun at Japan’s economic superiority. Top it off with the same faceless junk wagon beat as “The Stuff You Gotta Watch” and you’ve got another worthless barroom belter that will make you want to run yourself through with a Samurai sword.
Listen to the Band: The Rest of the Catalogue
Music From Big Pink (3 out of 5 stars) was the best thing Eric Clapton had heard since the Beatles. I was impressed with “Big Pink” when it was first issued in 1968, but it hasn’t aged well. One reason is some of the songs were adapted for “Rock of Ages” and sound much better live with a horn section than in their original hayseed form, particularly “Chest Fever,” a draggy stomp, “Caledonia Mission,” in which Rick Danko comes off like an aw-shucks “Hee Haw” hayseed, and “Wheels On Fire,” done sans the horn section live, but at a more captivating freight train pace. You also get “The Weight,” and I’ll admit the reason I can’t listen to it anymore is because I’m in two bands that butcher the song no end. If you never heard the weighty five verse tale of Miss Fanny, Lucy, Crazy Chester and Jack his dog, it’s a keen example of Robertson’s talent for story telling, Helm’s dusty Tobacco Road delivery, and the group’s minimalist instrumentation. Manuel’s “We Can Talk About It” features a playful back and forth between Richard and Levon, and Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” gets a sensitive reading from Manuel, the likes of which Dylan could never achieve. Manuel’s “In A Station,” gives an insider’s look into his personality – he’s the dreamer, all alone on a hill, thinking about a woman he’s lost through his own foolish behavior. It’s another underrated, emotional performance from a one-of-a-kind singer who could make a reading of the phone book sound like it had been scripted by Shelley or Keats. The album loses a bit of its luster when Robbie Robertson steps to the mike to wrap his sandy larynx around “Kingdom Come” – there’s a reason you’ve got three singers, Robbie, use ‘em. The boys were smart enough not to let Robertson back in the booth until “Islands,” his last album with the group. The traditional “Long Black Veil” and Manuel’s “Lonesome Susie” are lifeless road kill best left in the practice pile. “Big Pink” is creaky, with the country-Americana influence thick as a homemade Johnny Cake in spots, but it can also thrill. And if you buy the remstered version, which was released on 2003, you nine extras tracks and outtakes spotlighting Manuel in his prime.
After the underrated “Cahoots,” and the energetic “Rock Of Ages,” it became clear to Robbie Robertson that The Band was in trouble. Despite their homespun image, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were doing the junkie nod during recording sessions, while Manuel missed sessions altogether -- and when he showed he was gob smacked. When your front men are junkies or alcoholics, your songwriter is out of ideas, and everyone’s tired from the album-tour-album syndrome, you can either pack it in, take an extended hiatus or have some fun. Robertson suggested the group take a stab at the type of material they used to do in the early 60s as Levon and the Hawks. The result, Moondog Matinee (3 ½ out of 5 stars), is the odd duck in their catalogue, populated by country weepers, Chuck Berry rockers, and side-splitting novelty tunes, but this duck sure can fly.
Everybody gets a chance to shine, including the monk-like Garth Hudson, who contributes a Tin Pan Alley variation on “The Third Man Theme.” Manuel’s natural talent for Ray Charles-crooning comes to the fore in “Share Your Love” and the group plays off the irony of Richard’s sloshed image with “Saved,” a temperance rocker in which Manuel claims “I’m saved, oh I’m saved. People let me tell you about kingdom come. I’m saved, oh I’m saved, and I’m gonna preach it until your deaf and dumb. I’m in the soul saving army, beating on the big bass drum.” Manuel may have been lying about his sobriety, but when he and Helm whack at the skins, you’ll be praisin’ Jesus for their sense of rhythm. Rick Danko delivers a vocal on Allen Toussaint’s “Holy Cow” that’s so polished many people swore it was Manuel when they heard it (yours truly included). The chooglin’ medium paced R & B numbers fit Levon like a sharkskin suit on a pimp – very smoothly. Altering Helm’s voice to sound like a Cylon Bullfrog in “Ain’t Got No Home,” let’s the listener know that not everything The Band does has to have a deep meaning. Helm and the boys scratch out a signature tune with their version of “Mystery Train,” which speeds along at a station-hopping pace, thanks to the addition of former Mothers of Invention drummer Billy Mundi playing alongside Manuel. The remastered version of the album is even better than the original with five outtakes, including an intriguing run through of “Shakin’” that benefits from Levon’s grunts as he punishes his drums, and Hudson’s fruity experimenting. If you want to hear The Band having fun, pick this up, dog.
In 1976, tired and hung over, The Band (and Robertson in particular), announced they’d had enough of the road and of each other. Helm disagreed, but went along with the idea of a grande finale concert. The Last Waltz (2 out of 5 stars) was their sloppy swansong. It was filmed by Martin Scorsese, who knew how to make great gangster movies but had no clue how to film a rock band. Because Robertson brought him on board, it was Robbie front and center throughout. Except for some brief cameos and an embarrassing inebriated interview, you’d never know Richard Manuel was a member of The Band. By now Helm was already chaffing under the knowledge that Robertson was making a mint by claiming to be the sole writer of the majority of their catalogue. He was further irritated at Robertson’s initial refusal to let Muddy Waters perform, while Neil Diamond, who’s album Robertson was producing, was allowed to hawk a new song. When he saw how many close ups the non-singing Robertson got compared to himself, Danko, and Manuel, he fumed, pointing out in interviews that the tone deaf guitarist was singing into a dead mike.
“The Last Waltz” is a grab bag of good, bad and inebriated performances. Paul Butterfield’s lone contribution, “Mystery Train,” explodes with raw power as Butter blows the harp with conviction. (Unfortunately Butterfield is barely shown in the film.) Van Morrison vamps out a crowd-pleasing “Caravan;” Muddy Waters gives one of his last great performances with “Mannish Boy,” virtual unknown songwriter Bobby Charles (writer of “See You Later Alligator”) struts with the help of Levon and Dr. John on vocals with Rick Danko manning the fiddle on his go-timey tune “Down South In New Orleans,” and virtually everything Levon sings, especially “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Ophelia,” is presented with vibrance and the knowledge he may never sing these songs again. (Levon’s performances were so dead on he was one of the few performers who didn’t have to go back into the studio to fix his vocal). On the other hand, Bob Dylan continues to sing like he’s passing the entire Band through his nostrils, Neil Young is hopeless during “Helpless” (despite Joni Mitchell’s unwarranted warbling) and the Lady of the Canyon herself raps through an out of place “Coyote,” which has all the appeal of a flea bitten scavenger, despite The Band’s ability to adapt to her bee bop buffoonery.
Robertson was forced to raid the vaults in order to complete the group’s final album, 1977’s Islands (3 out of 5 stars). Helm was feuding with the guitarist and erstwhile plotting his revenge by organizing the RCO All-Stars for his first solo effort. (The All-Stars were comprised of Paul Butterfield, Booker T. Jones, Duck Dunn, Dr. John and Fred Carter, Jr. and proved to be a formidable if not short lived group that turned Helm’s first record into the best Band solo effort.) Danko and Manuel were available when conscious, but Robertson, desperate to move on, interspersed current recordings with tracks from as far back as 1972 in order to fulfill the group’s contract. Helm only gets two leads and one is a cover, although a biting, leering one. His cock-sure vocal matches Manuel’s pounding piano and Robertson’s biting guitar break in “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love,” and he gets the last laugh in the bouncy oompah arrangement of “Livin’ In A Dream,” which benefits from his twang: “I’m gonna buy, buy, buy you a sheepskin coat. I’m gonna strang (string) red rubies ‘round your throat. Gentle down stream I will row your boat, ‘cause you know where only livin’ in a dream.” Danko shows vocal prowess in the sexist “Streetwalker,” which gets real interesting when Garth Hudson throws down a dirt sax solo that’ll leave you wanting to take a shower. Unable to leave well enough alone, Robertson takes only his second lead vocal on “Knockin’ Lost John,” a tale of the Depression made more so by the guitar player’s Tom Waits school of sandpaper singing. Richard Manuel, by now a pixilated shell of himself, tries too hard to imitate the grandeur of Ray Charles’ version of “Georgia On My Mind.” If fans didn’t know that The Band’s most talented singer had damaged his vocal chords with staggering amounts of alcohol, this strained, tough to endure version was proof. (Even Manuel said “I over sang it.”) Manuel used to be able to elicit a wide variety of heartbreaking emotions with his voice. Now all he could elicit was pity – and it came from his audience who mourned his lost talent. But even an incapacitated Richard Manuel was better than most singers. He proves it by turning the otherwise boring prom music of “Right As Rain” into a tolerable opener and by wringing out the last bit of genuine emotion from his voice in “Let The Night Fall.” Because of a dearth of material, Robertson was forced to include the title track, a hillbilly sym-phony, and “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” a retelling of the birth of the boy in the manger that was so banal it could have served as recruitment song for The Sons of Satan cult. The album was released in March, a little late to jump on the Xmas bandwagon.
Two out of the trio of Robertson-less reunion albums fared well. “Jericho” (see above) was a triumph that returned The Band to prominence and proved that without Manuel’s mellifluous voice and Robertson’s short stories they were still a Band…The Band. High On The Hog (2 out of 5 stars) was The Band’s low point. They were just about out of useable Manuel outtakes, and made the mistake of including of using a staggeringly bad low-fi recording of Manuel slogging his way through “She Knows.” After one listen you’ll know why it wasn’t meant to be released. “Hog” starts out with promise, leading off with “Stand Up,” a reaffirming rocker with a punchy Helm vocal. A reworked and polished “Going Back To Memphis” (which the group had been rehearsing since “Moondog Matinee”), displays laid-back Southern charm. It’s the group’s cover of En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind,” yes, En Vogue, that shocks and shines. A more unlikely match could hardly be made, especially when Levon starts twangin; about “hip hop clothes” and “ringin’ his buy before he’s through.” Helm sounds angry enough to chew through a gold record. Ironically it’s his angry tone that makes their version work. Garth Hudson gets real jiggy on the synthesizer, darting about like Flavor Flav with a live time bomb hanging from his neck. A synthesized bass and some funky horn breaks (again supplied by Mr. Soul, Garth Hudson) match up well with Helm’s clipped hillbilly vocal, and Levon and second drummer Rick Ciarlante create more percussive pop than a squad of police shooting at a Tupac target. This is The Band. They ain’t supposed to be this side of Sly Stone funky, but they are. It’s hard to top “Free Your Mind,” and for once, The Band couldn’t. Although a lazy stab at J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama” (which in itself was pleasantly sleepy) with Levon on bass is worth a few spins, the rest of “High on the Hog” is slop.
Despite Helm’s obvious throat problems, 1998’s Jubilation (3 ½ stars out of 5), was an even more appropriate coda to the group’s career than “The Last Waltz.” There was a festive mood to the album, which was buttressed by guests Eric Clapton, Bobby Charles, Tom “Bones” Malone and Band kin Ann Helm and Maude Hudson. Unlike their other reunion albums, “Jubilation” was comprised of original tunes rather than covers. Because of the onset of throat cancer, Helm’s voice was as rough as sandpaper in the Sahara, but he still had enough grit to turn “Kentucky Downpour” into a deluge of Stax soul, and his hoarse lived-in lead croak makes you believe the “Last Train To Memphis” is indeed pullin’ out of the station for the last time. Many of the song’s display the type of well thought out descriptive imagery missing since “Northern Lights, Southern Cross.” In “Don’t Wait,” Helm croaks: “I’ve known high times more than once, now I stick mainly to honky tonks. And I’ve known danger and I’ve known defeat, I’ve seen whole generations fall to sleep. I’ve danced with angels, I’ve drunk my fill, I’ve talked with God out on the hill.” In the optimistic “High Cotton,” Rick Danko comes to the realization his life’s been a lot better than he thought; “There’s a hundred lucky lady bugs landin’ everywhere I see, I won a million dollars for a dollar in the lottery. My best friend C.W. is due, he beat every charge that the police threw, I’m in high cotton, I’ve forgotten that I’ve had the blues. I’m in high cotton, yes I’m in high cotton, soft and white as the clouds. I’m high cotton, the popcorn’s poppin’, ain’t no stopping me now.” Because of Helm’s affliction, Danko was forced to take on the lion’s share of the material – it would have been great to hear Levon take on the “Willie And The Hand Jive” beat of “Spirit Of The Dance,” but Danko’s vocal is fearless and fun.
And The Band Played On…
On March 4, 1986, after a good natured talk with Levon Helm about music and movies, Richard Manuel went back to his hotel room, consumed yet another bottle of Grand Marnier, tossed a rope over the shower rod and hung himself. His depression over life on the road, the group’s shrinking concert venues, and most certainly the liquor he’d consumed were major factors. Both Helm and Manuel’s wife, Arlie, claimed that Manuel had changed his mind in mid-act, but it was too late and his hangman’s knot was too effective. The Band played on, but now they were like a souped up Chevy with a clogged valve, still fast, occasionally brilliant, but equally prone to sputtering out.
The Band lost its second founding member on December 10, 1999, when Rick Danko died in his sleep, reportedly from heart failure. Having seen Rick Danko’s transformation from a young rake to huffing Michelin Man, it was obvious from the rivers of sweat he was issuing that he was pushing his abused body way too hard on stage. The irony was his death came at a time when he was said to be sober.
With two out of three voices stilled, The Band ceased to exist. Fans hoped in vain that Levon Helm would remove the pick axe he’d buried in Robbie Robertson’s back decades before, but if anything, Levon is a man of his word. He swore after The Last Waltz that he’d never speak to Robertson again, and so far, he hasn’t.
Robertson recorded two highly acclaimed solo albums, 1987s self-title debut and “Storyville.” His first solo effort was a success in spite of itself. Robertson croaked his way through nine tunes, but had plenty of vocal help from Bono (not Sonny), the BoDeans and Peter Gabriel. The half-rapped “Showdown at Big Sky,” the BoDean dominated “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” and “Fallen Angel,” a tribute to Richard Manuel, were hot on the airwaves. Having Rod Stewart pluck “Broken Arrow” from the pile and turn it into a hit didn’t hurt sales either. “Storyville” set Robertson in a New Orleans mode, and “Go Back to the Woods,” his collaboration with Bruce Hornsby, made the top 50. After that, Robertson went the way of artistic hubris – he thought his fan base was so solid that he could release any esoteric drivel and folks would buy it. His duo of Native American influenced albums, 1994’s “Music for the Native Americans” and 1998’s “Contact From the Underworld of Redboy” were scalped by critics and sold poorly.
Garth “Honey Boy” Hudson remained the group’s diplomat, appearing on everyone else’s solo works. He released his own album, The Sea To the North, in 2001, formed a 12-piece orchestra for giggles and teamed up with his wife, Maud.
During The Band’s hiatus and subsequent resurrection, Helm tried his hand at acting. He received well deserved acclaim for his pivotal roles in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (as Loretta Lynn’s father) and “The Right Stuff,” playing pioneering test pilot Jack Ridley. The most prolific artist in the group, Helm has released five solo albums, including this year’s “Dirt Farmer,” a collection of recordings from his youth. He’s also engineered a series of “Midnight Rambles” at his home in Woodstock, New York. The rambles are loose jam sessions with Helm, his band, and neighborhood musicians in the tradition of the traveling medicine shows that cris-crossed the South.
Helm’s post Band story may be the most colorful, if not the most inspirational. Stricken with throat cancer during the recording of “Jubilee,” Helm endured years of strength-sapping chemo, losing his strong twang. He was silent, content to lay down the beat and hesitantly add background vocals for nearly ten years. Miraculously, Helm’s voice has returned to nearly full strength in recent years.
They may have played their last waltz decades ago, but there’s still only one group with the talent and the unique woodsy sound that could call itself THE BAND…