Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Band 1968-1998

It's a bit of a surprise that I haven't yet dedicated an entry to The Band. I've mentioned them a few times, but I've done pretty big career overviews of Robert Palmer, The Sons Of Champlin, Van Morrison and The Beatles. It seems like I should have gotten to The Band.

Let's make sure we understand each other. This will not be an unbiased review of the artists' output. I loved their first four records. At the time they were released, I would have been less your friend if you dissed them (although we didn't say "dissed" back then).

I'm not sure what to say about Music From Big Pink 1968. It is everything anyone you read says it is. There's a million reviews and old print articles archived. This record is the meaning of the musical term (coined thirty years later) Americana. It is country, R&B, blues, New Orleans funeral march, bluegrass, and Buddy Holley rock 'n' roll wrapped up in a blue plate special for your ears. The stoming piano-driven rock of To Kingdom Come,  the funky country stomp of Calidonia Mission, the ensemble lead vocals of We Can Talk, the lead guitar and pulsing R&B of This Wheels On Fire, not to mention The Weight ("take a load off, Fanny") and Garth Hudson's amazing organ opening to the rocking ode to frontal anatomy that is Chest Fever. The record never stops.

From there came The Band 1969, with Up On Cripple Creek, Across The Great Divide,  The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rocking Chair, The Unfaithful Servant, and King Harvest (Has Surely Come). And every other song on the record. If you haven't heard this record, you can't really fully understand American rock and roll. Don't buy that crap? Go listen to it.

Their third, a disappointment to some, and even I must admit that side two is what really makes it, is still the group living up to their potential, and a fine record. Stage Fright 1970 side one feels like treading water, and Todd Rundgren's slightly sterile engineering doesn't help. Strawberry Wine and Time To Kill sound great today, and the recording is especially good on Levon Helm's drum kit. Side two is just a classic. The final three tracks, Daniel And The Sacred Harp, Stage Fright, and The Rumor are well worth the price of the record or CD. The Rumor is just beautiful.

1971's Cahoots found the band stretching out, and not everything worked. But enough of it did, and Life Is A Carnival, 4% Pantomime (with Van Morrison), and Where Do We Go From Here? were particular highlights. The River Hymn is another classic.

If there is a hallmark to this group, it is their organic sound. Levon Helm's drums always sound just a little like sticks on cardboard, Richard Manual's piano sounds like a small upright in someone's parlor, the reedy twang of Robbie Robertson's Fender Telecaster, always without effects, the high lonesome tenor of spot-on bassman and vocalist extraordinaire Rick Danko, and the deeply American sound of Garth Hudson's Hammond B3 organ.

In 1972, The Band made Rock Of Ages, one of the best live double-LP packages you can find anywhere. Adding horns arranged by Allen Toussaint, the live performance is exquisite. The 2-CD reissue contains the entire concert, including Bob Dylan's four-song set with the group.

After those first four studio recordings, things get dicey. 1973's Moondog Matinee finds The Band biding time with covers of oldies rock and roll from the (mostly) fifties. It's fine, but dispensable. Their last two, Northern Lights, Southern Cross 1975 (with at least a few good ones-Acadian Driftwood and It Makes No Difference) and Islands 1977 were mostly unnecessary. But those first four, and especially the first three, remain classics today, and you can hear today how different they were from their contemporaries.

1978 saw The Last Waltz, the soundtrack of the movie by the same name, that documented their star-studded farewell concert. It has it's moments.

The group resumed in 1983 without founder-songwriter Robbie Robertson, and I've heard at least some of the three records they released. It's sadly not the same. All of the members have made solo recordings, and of those, Helm's have been the most successful. Robertson seems content to confound his listeners at every turn, and hell if he's ever going to do anything that sounds like the band that made him famous.

Own the first three. If you're too young, think of it as a music history lesson.

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