It was almost titled America, which would have been fitting considering the deep understanding of that subject matter these four Canadians and an Arkansan demonstrated on their second studio album. Instead, it was simply named The Band, and never has an eponymous album been more appropriate than on this brilliant 1969 offering because it is the ultimate distillation of the genius and magic of this one-of-a-kind group. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Jawbone”- Richard Manuel co-wrote this song and creates an indelible portrait of a ne’er-do-well who nonetheless sounds like a fun guy to join for a night on the town. The music, with its tempo shifts and other quirks, is a bit more impressive than lovable.
11. “Jemima Surrender”- Levon Helm picked up a rare writing credit and sings this ribald tale with a twinkle in his eye and a few tricks up his sleeve. Jemima has little hope of resisting his charms, nor do we of resisting this relatively inconsequential yet undeniably fun mixture of innuendo and boogie.
10. “Look Out Cleveland”- Rick Danko takes the lead here, and it’s a good choice because he always played harried and frazzled well. His rubber bass work also proves that a song can rock hard and still swing. The oncoming hurricane here, which hits all the way from Cleveland to Houston, seems to be Robbie Robertson’s allegorical warning to members of his generation at what was a tumultuous time in the history of youth culture in America.
9. “Across The Great Divide”- The buoyant opening track immediately takes us deep into the American South via some Fats Domino piano and drunken horns. Robertson’s lyrics, indelibly sung by Richard Manuel, don’t skimp on the sinning in the verses, but they immediately subvert that vibe with the gospel-like refrains. Molly might have reason to shoot this bounder of a narrator, but he states his case with such ragged charm that the rest of us end up rooting for him to make it down to the river to the redemption for which he longs.
8. “When You Awake”- A sweet lullaby that’s sung with ultimate tenderness by Danko, this track effortlessly brings smiles. Helm’s hop-along beat and Hudson’s enveloping organ are the instrumental stars here, while the harmonizing in the refrain can send anyone off to slumber with sweet dreams.
7. “Rag Mama Rag”- Like “Jemima Surrender,” Helm plays the seducer here. He made the double-entendres (“Resin up the bow”) sound devious and innocent all at once, such was his vocal gift. And Robertson always knew just the right words to highlight that gift. The fiddles and Hudson’s wild piano work their magic, making The Band sound like the back-porch musicians they always were at heart, albeit the most accomplished and talented ones around.
6. “Unfaithful Servant”- As gentle as some of the other tracks are rousing, this showcase for Danko’s expressive, emotional vocals benefits from somber horns courtesy of Garth Hudson and producer John Simon and a killer acoustic solo from Robertson in the coda. The tale is beguilingly mysterious, as it is slowly revealed that the narrator is the title character, giving himself a pep talk for the next part of his journey. While the dynamic of the relationship in question here seems to be that of a rich mistress and the worker who betrays her, it also seems like Robertson’s sly commentary on the power trips that bedevil modern couplings.
5. “Up On Cripple Creek”- The rhythm, with Danko’s bass playing off Hudson’s effects-laden clavinet, would make any funk band proud. Robertson’s conjures a sort of lighthearted sequel to “The Weight,” a tale of escalating frustration and bemusement for the narrator, although all the heartache and happiness comes via a single captivating woman. This is Helm’s show, from his drumming so evocative it’s practically melodic, to his inimitable vocal, right down to the last yodel.
4. “Rockin’ Chair”- It’s so unassuming that it sneaks up on you, until you realize the tears welling up in your eyes. Helm on mandolin, Robertson on acoustic guitar, and Hudson on accordion push that rickety old boat across the water, while Manuel steers as the old salt trying to get back home to die. And those harmonies…I can’t believe I’ve got three songs ranked better than this one.
3. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”- It’s hard to imagine another song demonstrating the wealth of musical talent The Band had at their disposal. Helm’s thumping toms, Hudson’s lurking organ, Danko’s ominous bass lines all build the unbearable tension released by Robertson’s guitar solo which blazes like the fire that burned the barn. All through the album, the songs celebrate a simpler, gentler way of life that “King Harvest” makes clear is in mortal danger from hectic, encroaching modernity.
2. “Whispering Pines”- Manuel wrote the melody. Robertson heard in those chord changes, which struggle through their blue moods until finding their golden resolution, the essence of Richard’s personality, responding with lyrics of heartbreaking loveliness. Manuel’s vocal is ethereally soulful, while Hudson softens every blow with his keyboards. At the end, Helm joins for some call-and-response that sound like the two men were singing from mountain peaks across a wide distance impossible to breach. And yet they do come together for the final line: “The lost are found.” Music this powerful can make such things happen.
1. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”- What is the greater songwriting achievement by Robbie Robertson here? That he undercuts the popular storyline of the Civil War and dares to empathize with the losing side? Or is it how, in a few short strokes, he creates an unforgettable character and tells his personal tale that transcends tine and place? Of course, none of that works without Levon Helm, who embodies the wounded pride, resilient integrity, and horrifying, unrecoverable loss that’s found both within the lyrics and between the lines. Forget what you learned in class; this is the true damage done by The Civil War, lingering still.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the links below for books and e-books based on material which originated on this site.)
Next week, the deluxe edition of the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert from 1992 is coming out on CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray. For American Songwriter today, I gave my choices for the Top 10 from that star-studded event. Check it out in the link below.
Welcome to all those who have joined the blog for The Band Retro Review countdown. Just so you newcomers know, I’ll be posting those reviews in chronological order twice a week (probably Monday and Thursday), so if you’re tuning in for them, you’ll know when they’re coming. And I appreciate any comments, good or bad, that you might have. (I usually respond, just because I love having the last word.)
In addition, I’ll occasionally post links to my work at American Songwriter as a little extra content for my readers. Today I’ve got something about as far removed from The Band as you might care to find: A look at the 80’s power ballad classic “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” It’s in the link. Talk to you all again later this week.
It’s difficult to say too much about Music From Big Pink without drowning it in superlatives that could never match just what it feels like to hear it. It’s quite simply one of the finest albums in rock history, which is something considering that it was The Band’s debut album. Of course, they’d been around for a while as a touring outfit and Bob Dylan’s hand-picked electric wreckers, but they showed here their stunning abilities as songwriters, arrangers, and performers of music that felt as old as the hills yet still maintains its eternal relevance. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “To Kingdom Come”- You might think that I’m coming down on this one because of Robbie Robertson’s lone lead vocal on the album, but he gets by all right with plenty of assistance from the more accomplished vocalists in the group. The song is actually a solid effort with some fascinating “The end is nigh”-type lyrics. It only pales next to the more magical stuff all around it.
10. “Caledonia Mission”- A bit of a quirky track with enigmatic lyrics from Robertson, it possesses enough interesting moments to atone for the fact that the whole is a little disjointed. That’s the thing about The Band: They were so virtuosic and their chemistry was so fine that even the filler captivates.
9. “This Wheel’s On Fire”- Garth Hudson’s prickly keyboard effects are memorable, but the arrangement gets a bit too busy, failing to match the ominous murk of the The Basement Tapes version with Dylan on lead. The song itself contains limitless mysteries, which cover up any faults in the performance of it quite well.
8. “Long Black Veil”- Many people have taken a stab at this famous murder ballad, but The Band’s take just might be definitive (although Johnny Cash gives them a run for their money.) When those voices start piling up on each other with Richard Manuel’s electric piano nudging them along, they make you believe in even the most fantastical of the song’s elements.
7. “In A Station”- Most people know about Manuel’s inimitable voice, but they might not know that he wrote several idiosyncratically beautiful songs in his time with the group. With Hudson dancing all around the singers with his keyboards and the harmonies gorgeous as usual, lines like “Once upon a time leaves me empty” and “Can’t we have something to feel” feel like more than just one man’s thoughts; they feel like universal pleas.
6. “Tears Of Rage”- Robertson wanted a ballad to kick off the album, so The Band dipped into The Basement Tapes material for this unforgettable song with music by Manuel and lyrics by Dylan. I still like the simplicity of The Basement Tapes version, with those high harmonies surging all around Dylan’s bereft vocal, maybe a tad more, but the staggeringly slow version from Big Pink compels in its own way, with Manuel’s vocal capturing every bit of the shunned parents’ pain and Robertson’s gargling guitar part adding another haunting hook.
5. “Lonesome Suzie”- Robertson adds some tender guitar, Hudson bathes everything in a spectral glow, and those trademark woeful horns do their work, but this is Manuel’s show. The song portrays a hopelessly isolated soul with lyrics that charm with their simplicity and empathy. Then Manuel sings it and breaks your heart right in half like only he could do.
4. “Chest Fever”- Lest anyone think they couldn’t rock out, this groovy beast answers all doubts. Hudson’s mad-scientist organ sets the tone, getting The Band as close to pyschedelia as they would ever cone, before the rhythm section, consisting of Danko’s swaggering, skipping bass and Levon Helm’s funky yet muscular beat, takes over. Helm and Manuel bark out the nonsensical lyrics with gusto, and the moment when Helm snaps the woozy bridge back into attention with a few snare shots can’t help but invigorate you. Man, these guys could play.
3. “We Can Talk”- No band has ever had three vocalists like The Band, and “We Can Talk” shows this off in exhilarating fashion. “One voice for all/Echoing around the hall,” they sing, and the unique give-and-take they manage here really brings that feeling through the speakers. Proving they could do Gospel with the same ease and spark that they brought to every other genre, this track could uplift even the most long-gone soul.
2. “I Shall Be Released”- I’ve gone on record in these write-ups as saying that I preferred The Basement Tapes versions of “This Wheels On Fire” (by a lot) and “Tears Of Rage” (by a smidge) over the Big Pink takes. On the other hand, The Band’s version of “I Shall Be Released,” which benefits, as the whole album does, from John Simon’s intuitive production, can’t ever be topped, by Dylan or anyone else who takes a crack at this miracle of succinct songwriting. Manuel plays the spiritual prisoner and exudes fathoms-deep wells of yearning and hurt, even as Hudson’s cocoons him protectively in his wah-wah keyboards. At last the trio of voices in the chorus, high, higher, and highest, achieve the transcendence that no wall could ever contain.
1. “The Weight”- It’s their signature song, which is OK, because it’s still the song that, if you had to explain The Band’s incomparable music to someone, you would play them. Hudson’s piano work may come to the fore, but it’s the instinctive interplay between the players, all in service of the song, that really leaves an impression. It’s also Robertson’s first great lyric; he uses the colloquialisms and idioms effortlessly not as the song’s end-all, be-all, but rather to help tell his story about the futility of being a good man when everybody else is out to get theirs. He also knew he had Helm’s innate feistiness and integrity to imbue the lyrics with layers that weren’t on the page. It all leads up to the refrains and once more to Helm, Danko, and Manuel unifying those unique voices, helping each other to carry Fanny’s load right to Judgement Day.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @jimbeviglia. Check out the links below to books based on material which originated on this site.)
For those waiting for a new Retro Review series, we’ll be kicking one off on Monday. In the meantime, check out the link to my American Songwriter piece on Billy Bragg’s “Valentine’s Day Is Over”.
Here are a couple new articles of mine from American Songwriter. First up is a piece on Carole King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”:
Also, here is a look at Conor Oberst’s new single:
Look for a new Retro Review series coming up in the next few weeks. Have a good one, everybody.
In the link is my in-depth look at the continuing resonance of “Redemption Song,” the last major artistic statement from Bob Marley before his untimely death. Courtesy of American Songwriter.