Some ridiculous spring snow, clearly left over from the winter that wouldn’t end, left me a bit behind schedule this morning. As a result, my Retro Review series on Springsteen will get underway tomorrow instead of today. Sorry for the delay, but we’ll be cooking with gas tomorrow.
I’d like to thank everyone for tuning in to my Retro Review series on The Band. They are a group that is really special to me, which you can probably tell from my sometimes-gushing reviews, and it was really a blessing to be able to put my two cents in on their catalog.
Next up, beginning on Monday, is a Retro Review series on the albums of Bruce Springsteen. My book on Springsteen comes out in the middle of June, so this series should take me right up to that date. I’m hoping that those of you regular readers who are Springsteen fans will let any friends of similar taste know about the series. I really think you all will enjoy it. I know I’m looking forward to getting it started.
One more request: If there are any of you who have read Counting Down Bob Dylan and have a minute or two on their hands, a review on Amazon would be greatly appreciated. I’m just asking for honesty in the review; the more there are, the more the book gets promoted by Amazon to people searching for Dylan or similar subject matter. Same goes for any of my e-books. All the links are below, for those off you who may be new to the site and my writing and want to check them out.
In the meantime, have a great weekend, and get ready for a full-on onslaught of The Boss on Monday.
It’s fitting that The Band’s last album would turn out to be 1998’s Jubilation, since it seemed to be a conscious attempt to go back, lyrically at least, to where it all began for them. Some of the horn-fueled business that marred High On The Hog creeps in at times, but the songwriting, even though it comes from a variety of sources, keeps a consistent tone and there are a couple of real beauties along the way. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Spirit Of The Dance”- Way overdone with the horns and mystic lyrics and pounding drums.
10. “White Cadillac (Ode To Ronnie Hawkins)”- Newer members of The Band step up here, but it only makes you realize how integral those three original vocalists were to the group’s success. The song itself, a rollicking tribute to The Band’s mentor Hawkins, is solid with lyrics that wax nostalgic about the old days on Yonge Street, but Randy Ciarlante’s lead vocal never quite gets it airborne.
9. “Kentucky Downpour”- The horns are excessive. Too bad, because this had the potential to be a call-back to “Look Out Cleveland,” wherein some ominous weather presages man-made calamities.
8. “Last Train To Memphis”- This swinger comes courtesy of Bobby Charles, who penned some early R&B classics like “Walkin’ To New Orleans.” Elvis Presley is prominent here as a symbol, his home a destination representing music’s indestructible power even when those who play it are gone. Eric Clapton punches in a few licks for a little icing on the cake.
7. “You See Me”- Dipping back into the Allen Toussaint songwriting well does The Band a lot of good here. Levon Helm wasn’t in the strongest voice on this album but songs like this were never any sweat for him. Garth Hudson’s saxophone gets way down in the dumps with the hapless protagonist.
6. “Don’t Wait”- There are echoes of classics like “When You Awake” and “Rockin’ Chair” in this nice little track, what with an elder on his last legs giving advice to a youngster about to learn the truths of the world the hard way, which is really the only way. This song maybe labors a bit to get those same points across which is why it isn’t ranked higher here, but it’s a nice effort just the same.
5. “High Cotton”- Sometimes life is all ladybugs, Coca-Cola, and mandolins, no matter the blues that bedevil everybody else. Danko, who co-wrote the track with Tom Pacheco, sounds like a guy who knows the bliss is temporary but that it’s better than nothing. Hudson’s sax solo sounds like it was piped in from another song yet it works anyway.
4. “Bound By Love”- John Hiatt was a good choice to make a guest spot, considering that he has the kind of distinctive voice that The Band’s singers all possessed. His duet with Danko is simple and effective, a nice treatise on devotion seconded by typically spot-on accompaniment from the players.
3. “French Girls”- Garth’s little postscript is a mix of power-ballad synth chords and end-of-the-evening saxophones. That doesn’t sound like it would be lovely, moving stuff, but it is.
2. “If I Should Fail”- I think a lot of people would peg Rick Danko as the ultimate support guy in The Band, underpinning things on bass, coming in with harmonies at just the right time, etc. But Jubilation‘s best moments come when he takes the spotlight, such as on this ballad of a doomed gunfighter facing his end with equal parts resignation and courage. The redemptive love of a good woman, the trail coming to an end in gunfire and defeat: It’s nothing that hasn’t been written or portrayed before. But the innate tenderness that Danko brings pushes it past cliche into truly powerful territory.
1. “Book Faded Brown”- Much credit goes to Paul Jost, who wrote such a lovely song that dovetails so nicely with themes that The Band has always embodied: Family, tradition, the wobble between sweet and sad that life inevitably dances. Danko wisely understates everything, for these things are as they once were and always will be, so there’s no need to shout about it. Hudson captures it all anyway as his accordion trips through the bucolic scene with benevolence and wisdom. Heck, this one is so fine you don’t even notice that Levon sits it out. Could have fit in seamlessly on either Big Pink or The Brown Album; is there any higher praise than that?
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
Here are some of my most recent American Songwriter articles. First my past two Lyric of the Week essays. On James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”:
And on the Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road”:
Also, two new reviews. On Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady:
And on Out Among The Stars, a new collection of unreleased 80’s material from Johnny Cash:
Check them out if you have the time, and have a good one, everybody.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Remember that pre-orders are available now for my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, out in June, and my first book, Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, is out now everywhere. Check out the links below.)
Proving that their rebirth as studio artists had legs, The Band followed up 1993’s Jericho with High On The Hog in 1996. This album was even more reliant on cover material than its predecessor, with some of the song choices inspired and some a tad wacky. Nonetheless, they still sounded great, even if their horn-laden, big Band sound drastically deviated from the relatively stark magic they conjured in their prime. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “I Must You Love Too Much”- There was a reason that Bob Dylan shelved this one. Not even Bob’s idiosyncratic phrasing could have saved this mess which sounds like it took less time to write than it does to perform.
9. “The High Price Of Love”- One of two “originals” on the album (although Jules Shear and Stan Szelest are credited along with The Band), there’s nothing special here, a groove in search of a song. Sung and played well, but still filler.
8. “Crazy Mama”- Once a hit for J.J. Cale, this grinding blues has Helm on bass, and he acquits himself well in service of an otherwise routine genre exercise.
7. “Ramble Jungle”- Sort of out of left field. The vocals are provided by Champion Jack Dupree, a New Orleans blues legend who died in 1992 not long after this recording was made. It’s got a little bit of “Don’t Do It” in it, but its inclusion probably speaks more to the lack of suitable material for the album than to its effectiveness.
6. “Free Your Mind”- I’m sure this one is a bit polarizing if only because of the risky song choice. I actually think Levon Helm sells the lyrics of the one-time En Vogue song well by playing them straight. If there’s a problem, it’s that the horns are a bit of overkill. Better to have stood pat with the Helm’s stinging drum groove as the main focus.
5. “Stand Up”- The herky-jerky beat and horn-heavy arrangement are reminiscent of the great work The Band did with Allen Toussaint back in the day on “Life Is A Carnival” and Rock Of Ages. Levon sings the heck out of it, turning this 80’s country hit into a solid if unspectacular blues.
4. “Forever Young”- I’m not sure they could have done much with this evergreen on which they backed Dylan on Planet Waves that would have turned heads. That they chose the same lumbering tempo as the original version probably sealed its fate as loving homage instead of clever re-imagining. But Garth Hudson’s accordion part in the breaks is worth the price of admission.
3. “Where I Should Always Be”- Written by one-time Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, this ballad gives Rick Danko the soulful showcase with which he always charmed. Once he sinks into the minor keys, it’s easy to overlook the somewhat pedestrian lyrics because Danko makes them sound like the most profound poetry. Nice work by Hudson, of course, keeps the vibe intact in the instrumental accompaniment.
2. “Back To Memphis”- Not to be confused with the Chuck Berry raver that The Band memorably covered, this is a soulful lament that Helm, with Danko in harmony, handle with power and grace. Hudson’s saxophone work is typically on-point, playing nicely off Richard Bell’s nimble piano work. As inspired as some of the best stuff on Moondog Matinee.
1. “She Knows”- So what if its divine tenderness throws a harsh light on the rest of the album? The Band does right by their fallen comrade Richard Manuel by including this gorgeous live performance (recorded just months before his death) of an unreleased Bread song. Hudson provided the restrained string arrangement that proved the ideal setting for some of Manuel’s most heart-rending emoting. Then Danko comes in for one of those skyscraper harmonies in the closing moments to absolutely kill you.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the links below for books based on material that originated on this site.)
Following the departure of chief songwriter Robbie Robertson and death of Richard Manuel, new product from The Band seemed like a pipe dream. Yet in 1993, the three remaining original members teamed up with some of the musicians who had been touring with them and released Jericho, a fine collection of thoughtful song interpretations and spirited performances. Even though the second half drags, the best stuff here is worthy of their towering legacy. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Move To Japan”- Lyrically, it’s lost somewhere between social commentary and satire. As music, it’s boilerplate boogie topped with thuddingly obvious Oriental touches. So begins the lackluster second half of Jericho.
11. “Shine A Light”- The Band’s best gospel music sounds like it was recorded under some revival tent. This one sounds like it was recorded in a studio in the early 90’s.
10. “River Of Dreams”- It has a nice enough melody, and Rick Danko sings it with tenderness. But the arrangement, sounding more like the tasteful exotica in which Steve Winwood or Peter Gabriel traded, robs The Band of their personality.
9. “Blues Stay Away From Me”- The closing track is the kind of sleepy blues that you can hear at the end of the night in bars everywhere.
8. “Same Thing”- The arrangement is maybe a bit too busy for this moody Willie Dixon blues classic. Levon Helm salvages things though with a typically gritty vocal and one of his trademark off-kilter rhythms.
7. “Stuff You Gotta Watch”- The instrumentalists sink their collective teeth into this jump blues, and Levon could sing this stuff in his sleep. Well-done, if not exactly revelatory.
6. “Remedy”- The Muscle Shoals-style horns give this energetic opening track soul to spare. The heart comes from Helm’s lead vocal, who for the umpteenth time plays the role of a harried rambler who finds both aggravation and salvation in the arms of a woman.
5. “The Caves Of Jericho”- While this may have been an obvious attempt to recapture the historical glories of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” right down to the somber piano chords, it’s a strikingly successful one. While the lyrics (written by Helm, John Simon, and Richard Bell) may overplay the sorrow at times and lack the deft hand that Robbie Robertson possessed with similar material, having Levon on lead bringing authenticity and passion to the tale of a mine cave-in helps to atone for any weaknesses. And the instrumental mix, fiddles and horns and Garth Hudson’s keyboard apparitions, is undeniably stirring.
4. “Country Boy”- Recorded not too long before his death in 1986, “Country Boy” gave us all one more chance to hear Richard Manuel take a seemingly simple song and wring from it unfathomable levels of emotion. Even at his huskiest, his voice still creaked and faltered in all the right places. When you used the word “soulful” to describe Manuel’s singing, it wasn’t a nod to some genre of music but rather an acknowledgement that he laid his soul bare for the world to hear with every note he sang. One can only hope that soul now rests in the peace it struggled to find down here with the rest of us.
3. “Too Soon Gone”- Jules Shear’s song is a beauty, a meditation on loss that takes poetic turns yet never gets so fussy that the hurt isn’t front and center. Danko, undoubtedly drawing on the memories of his old buddy Manuel, gives an achingly pretty performance in tribute, while Hudson roams the edges with impactful saxophone fills. Lumps in your throat the whole way on this one.
2. “Atlantic City”- If Jericho did nothing else, it reminded everyone of what an authoritative and charismatic performer Helm always was. After setting the tone with some evocative mandolin, he takes Bruce Springsteen’s tale of big dreams and hard luck in the gambling mecca, rendered by the Boss in such iconic fashion on Nebraska, and somehow makes us hear it anew. Hudson helps of course, his accordion taking us on a stroll from the boardwalk to the back alleys and back again.
1. “Blind Willie McTell”- First of all, the song itself is among Dylan’s most haunting, expanding Robbie Robertson’s own examinations of the American South into dark corners and tortured pasts. The Band chose a bluegrass route for their take, albeit one goosed by a herky-jerky rhythm, and then let Danko and Helm work their magic, raising the intensity verse by verse until they harmonize in the refrains, summoning all the ghosts to the fore in the process. Chilling and thrilling all at once.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)
The Band owed their record company one more album and they recorded this album in the midst of rehearsals for The Last Waltz. As a result, 1977’s Islands is as disjointed and discombobulated as one might expect. There is a glimmer or two of the old chemistry and brilliance, but everything from the songwriting to the arrangements to the performances feels ordinary, an adjective that was rarely used when these five guys played together. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Let The Night Fall”- Not even the glorious harmonies in the refrain provide a spark here. This is as pedestrian as anything in their output.
9. “Islands”- The title track is an instrumental that wants to be whimsical but comes off sounding toothless.
8. “Street Walker”- Rick Danko shared writing credit for this track with Robbie Robertson, making it a rarity in The Band’s catalog. Alas, they never pulled off urban with near as much conviction as they did rural.
7. “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love”- Even with the horns coming for the ride and Levon Helm doing what he can on lead vocal, the lack of ingenuity of this cover version is glaring compared to the performances on Moondog Matinee.
6. “Right As Rain”- The jazz-noir groove sounds like it was borrowed second-hand from Steely Dan, and Robertson’s lyrics are all over the place in terms of focus. Yet Richard Manuel darn near rescues it all with a performance that’s understated yet moving.
5. “Georgia On My Mind”- Upon hearing Manuel’s ravaged voice, it’s hard not to wish for a recorded version of the song with him on lead when he was at the peak of his powers. He tries valiantly though, and even though this doesn’t come near Ray Charles’ definitive take, it’s shot through with enough feeling to make it worthwhile.
4. “Living In A Dream”- The overriding problem with the songs on Islands is that they’re always a bit off; when one or two elements are in place, there are other elements sorely lacking. On this closing track, for example, there is a sweet, slippery sax solo from Garth Hudson and a fine refrain on the good side of the ledger, with a plodding rhythm and trite lyrics on the bad. At least the good wins out here, but Band fans were used to complete victories.
3. “The Sage Of Pepote Rouge”- The title might make you expect one of Robertson’s historical epics, but, upon listening, you’ll find a tale about as far from fact as possible. There is something endearingly wacky about the story of a goddess savior beckoned to save mankind with her spaceship. The music seems like an afterthought next to the quirky lyrics, but the idiosyncratic nature of this one is welcome compared to the rather tame stuff all around it.
2. “Knockin’ Lost John”- Robertson shares lead vocals with Helm on this unassumingly grooving tale of the Great Depression. Hudson’s accordion solo and the loose, rumbling groove makes this the most musically memorable track on the line, even if it would hardly seem revelatory on Music From Big Pink or the Brown Album.
1. “Christmas Must Be Tonight”- The relaxed vibe and restrained musical accompaniment really allow the charm of Robertson’s lyric and tune to shine through, one of the few rock Christmas songs that seems like a genuine outpouring of holiday feelings rather than a cynical grab at seasonal royalties. Having Danko sing it with such authentic emotion didn’t hurt either.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)