Monday, October 25, 2010

'The Band' remains as vital as ever after 41 years

Four decades later, it is easy to underestimate The Band's impact when they had their breakthrough in 1968. At that time, rock and roll remained drenched in psychedelia, and free-form expressionistic jamming was the style of choice. Bands with silly names like the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Vanilla Fudge were on the scene.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the time was ripe for a breath of fresh air. The Band, whose very name was a reaction to the times, arrived on the scene that year with their debut album Music from Big Pink. Instead of the jamming that was popular, The Band emphasized ensemble work and their expertise on their debut record produced songs like 'The Weight.'

To those paying attention, The Band was not a new band. They performed for years under names like The Crackers and The Hawks. They eventually began playing with Bob Dylan, and their best collaborations with him occurred in 1967. They worked with Dylan as he recuperated from a motorcycle accident, and that collaboration was eventually released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.

However, The Band released its best album in late 1969. This self-titled album would haunt them in some respects because it provided a remarkably high standard for the rest of their career. The fullness and richness of these recordings grow stronger with each listening.

The best song ever written about dignity is 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.' Written by guitarist Robbie Robertson, he showed that a Canadian could provide keen insight about American life during the Civil War. In fact, the whole album has an Americana feel that is unique. The fact that four of the groups five members were from Canada makes it all the more unique.

"Virgil Kane is the name, and I rode on the Danville train," sings drummer Levon Helm as the song begins. The song contains haunting imagery as vivid as any Matthew Brady photo, and it conveys the despair of lives that are in shambles. This song produces images that are cold and stark.

'Up on Cripple Creek' is funky and made the Top 30 on the singles chart. 'Rag Mama Rag' is fiddle driven and embraces the joys of sharing your sleeping bag with somebody special. 'King Harvest (Has Surely Come)' paints a picture of a late afternoon sunset in summertime.

Though Robertson was principle songwriter, he sings none of the songs. Rarely has a group been blessed with so many excellent vocalists. Helm, bassist Rick Danko, and pianist/organist Richard Manuel share the vocal chores. Manuel's sweet swinging on 'Whispering Pines' is worth the price of the album alone.

Following this album, they continued touring and churning out albums until the late 70s. However, they decided to call it quits and their farewell concert is one of the best rock and roll movies ever. Called The Last Waltz, it was a concert of epic proportions in which most of their contemporaries performed.

After a few years, four of them (minus Robertson) reformed and toured. Kind of like a boxer who can not stop returning to the ring, they played on and on and on. However, that should not take away any of the luster of their career.

Resource material: The Rolling Stone Album Guide; The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll

1 comment:

Chris said...

While re-reading this posting, I realize I forgot to mention organist/musician virtuoso Garth Hudson. He did not sing or write songs, but his contribution was a major ingredient to The Band's sound.