CK Retro Review: High On The Hog by The Band

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.

ONE STAR

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the links below for books based onĀ  material that originated on this site.)

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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CK Retro Review: Jericho by The Band

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.

ONE STAR

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, 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