CK Retro Review: Moondog Matinee by The Band

Perhaps no group was ever so suited to record an album of covers as The Band, whose musical chemistry stayed tight even as their interpersonal relationships were fraying at the time of the release of Moondog Matinee in 1973. Yet even though this kind of project was right in their wheelhouse, the clever song selection and energetic, loving performances makes this disc extra-special. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

10. “I’m Ready”- This is the weakest thing on here only because the arrangement lacks the specialness of some of the other songs, even with Garth Hudson playing the stuffing out of the piano in homage to Fats Domino, the original artist for this fun raver.

9. “Holy Cow”- An affable rambler written by old Band buddy Allen Toussaint, “Holy Cow” benefits from some great unison singling by Levon Helm and Rick Danko, some crazy wah-wah guitar from Robbie Robertson, and Garth Hudson’s multi-instrumental wizardry gluing it all together. Very charming even if it’s on the slight side.

8. “The Promised Land”- The original song is so impeccable, one of Chuck Berry’s indelible potboilers, that it’s difficult for The Band to put much of a unique spin on it, even with Helm at the mike. They play it expertly and Hudson tries to put some fun spins on the instrumental stuff at the end, but it never quite breaks out of Berry’s formidable shadow.

7. “I’m Saved”- Rock and roll gospel wouldn’t be a bad shorthand way to describe what The Band was all about, so it makes sense that they would feel right at home with this Leiber/Stoller track. And when you have Richard Manuel doing the testifying, how can you go wrong?

FOUR STARS

6. “Third Man Theme”- As essential as he was as a complimentary player, Hudson’s turns in the spotlight, rare as they were, are magical in their own right. This winking take on the instrumental theme from a Hollywood Golden Era classic is completely out of bounds compared with the rootsiness all around it, but there is such cleverness and heart imbued by Hudson in every last note that it fits in just fine.

5. “Ain’t Got No Home”- Levon playing the woeful narrator of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s playful romp was such a natural, right down to the effects-aided croaking that he does, that it’s the perfect way to start this rollicking album. Hudson does double duty with stuttering tenor sax and ripping piano, elevating the song above mere nostalgia into an invigorating realm. Woo-woo indeed.

4. “The Great Pretender”- Nothing could improve upon the perfection of The Platters’ original, but the song selection is so suited to Manuel that there’s just no way this one could miss. Knowing Richard’s difficulties in life adds a little bit of poignancy to the performance, but you need no knowledge of The Band’s biography to appreciate the sweet sadness conveyed here.

3. “A Change Is Gonna Come”- How could anyone possibly compete with the colossal nature of Sam Cooke’s original? The Band knew that would be fighting a losing battle, so they wisely understate everything, from the delicate instrumentation that’s buoyed along by Richard Manuel’s nifty little drum fills, to Rick Danko’s achingly restrained lead vocal. The result doesn’t top Cooke, but it certainly would have made him proud.

FIVE STARS

2. “Mystery Train”- There was always some dark subtext lurking in this iconic rock and roll/blues song, but The Band bring it to the surface with their searing performance. Robertson’s nifty rearrangement deserves a lot of credit, making it all somehow deeper and more primal than other readings. Manuel and Helm conjure the thieving locomotive by doubling on drums (some accounts credit Billy Mundi as the second drummer and not Helm; I’m going with Robertson’s own account), while Robbie lashes out his guitar licks and Hudson plays as if Stevie Wonder were his inspiration and not Elvis. The original material was compelling enough, but The Band reveal the mysteries anew here.

1. “Share Your Love (With Me)”- The danger with a project like Moondog Matinee is that it can come off sounding fun but inconsequential. Richard Manuel’s performance on this Bobby “Blue” Bland R&B oldie is so essential in its conveyance of desperate longing that it alone silences any of those concerns. His buddies turn in a tender performance in support of him, especially Robertson with his soulful licks and Hudson on his soothing organ. It’s just beautiful and fragile and another example of why there won’t ever be a singer quite like Manuel.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and based on material that originated on this blog, check out the links below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

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