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.
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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.
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Jubilation was their last album, Islands their last with the original lineup, and The Last Waltz was meant to be their grand finale. But 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross always felt like The Band’s proper farewell. The album reaffirmed all that made them great in the first place, and what it may have lacked in terms of the quintet’s original rollicking energy, it replaced with reflective, assured brilliance. Here is a song-by-song review.
8. “Jupiter Hollow”- There are many Band chroniclers much more knowledgeable than I who absolutely love this song. Interesting tidbits certainly abound, such as the off-kilter clavinet beat, Hudson’s swirling synthesizers, and Robertson’s musings on the fine line between mythology and madness. I just don’t feel like those elements ever quite lock in together to make this more than an oddity.
7. “Rags And Bones”- Even with Hudson’s synths weaving around the main melody and some punchy licks from Robertson, the music here never quite ignites. Luckily, Robertson’s detail-heavy lyrics, which draw on memories of his Jewish heritage and his keen eye for the ephemera of city life, carry a lot of the load.
6. “Ring Your Bell”- With a head-bobbing bass line from Rick Danko and a generally energetic performance by all, this tale of outlaws on a hard road would have been a standout on Cahoots. Here, it sounds comparatively minor.
5. “Forbidden Fruit”- Recalling the ominous vibe of Stage Fright, one can’t help but wonder if this gritty opening track was Robertson’s warning to his Bandmates about their extracurricular pursuits. When his lyrics get a bit precious, Helm is there to save them with the authenticity of his vocals. The groove is rough and ready, and Robbie tears loose with a pair of fierce solos which recall his gunslinging days with the Hawks and Dylan.
4. “Ophelia”- The Band’s music always meshed well with horns, as the Rock Of Ages live album memorably demonstrated. This is essentially a tale of a lovesick fool waiting for the title character’s unlikely return, but Hudson’s buoyant brass won’t let anybody get too down about it. Support comes from Robertson’s just-right lead guitar and Helm, who not only sings the stuffing out of it but provides a beat that stutters and hiccups yet somehow resides in the pocket the whole time.
3. “Hobo Jungle”- Manuel may have lost his ability to hit those ethereal high notes as the years passed, but he always maintained his talent for finding the soulful core of one of Robertson’s stories. The latter plays his heart out on acoustic guitar here, and this is a good place as any to mention his songwriting, which can get overlooked in the context of The Band’s musical chemistry (and because he wasn’t the one singing the songs.) On this wistful example, Robbie takes on subject matter that most others wouldn’t even consider and lends it dignity and grace, so that the demise of the protagonist, a homeless drifter, feels as momentous as the death of a world leader. Which is the point of this wondrous song, really.
2. “It Makes No Difference”- Rick Danko’s greatest vocal gift was his ability to convey emotion which always seemed on the verge of becoming unmoored and spinning off into a place from which it could no longer be successfully recovered. Never did he get a better showcase for this talent than on this colossal ballad. Robertson rarely wrote straightforward love songs, but he poured it all out on this one, allowing Danko to go to town. In the final moments, his voice trembles and shakes, a victim to the enormity of his anguish. As if that isn’t enough, Robertson and Hudson pay id and ego in the coda, the former playing as if he can pierce through the hurt with his high notes, the latter blowing resolutely on his sax as if to say that pain is the inevitable outcome of love.
1. “Acadian Driftwood”- From the opening acoustic guitar figure, you can tell something special is afoot, but you can’t possibly expect to have your breath taken away over and over as the song progresses. But then it happens when you consider the poignancy of Robertson’s lyrics and tune, proving, as he tells the tale of Acadians displaced from their Canadian homes in the 18th century and forced to make their way down to Louisiana, that no one in the rock idiom wrote historical material better; no one has ever really come close. It happens when you hear Hudson’s small army of instruments, including piccolo and bagpipes to go with his ever-evocative accordion, conjuring all kinds of wistful emotion. (Byron Berline gets an assist for his Creole fiddle part.) And, of course, it happens when Danko, Helm, and Manuel, oh, those three voices, come together in the refrains to sing of pride of place, of homesickness, and of loss, immeasurable loss. An absolute miracle of a song had it come from anyone else, but this was The Band, after all.
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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.
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?
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.
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.
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There were a few flashes of the old brilliance to which fans could cling, but, for the most part, 1971’s Cahoots found The Band’s well running a bit dry. Inspiration was somewhat lacking in Robbie Robertson’s songwriting, and he wasn’t getting the help he once did in that department from the other group members. Their instrumental genius and harmony singing wouldn’t allow for them to record anything truly lousy, but the album certainly suffers from comparison to its predecessors. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Where Do We Go From Here?”- For the first time, Robertson writes less like an objective and insightful observer of American life and more like a scold. This song, even with the boys “La-la”-ing their hearts out, can’t recover from that main flaw.
10. “Thinkin’ Out Loud”- Rick Danko does all he can to try to salvage this one, although he doesn’t have much raw clay to mold here. The instrumental give-and-take between Robertson on guitar and Garth Hudson on piano is nice, but the melody is tired and the lyrics are somewhere in the clouds with the protagonist.
9. “Smoke Signal”- The grittiness of the music and Levon Helm’s makes this one palatable. Still, it’s another case of a humorless song, which is all right if the writing is strong enough. Here it’s only so-so, if only because Robertson’s points about miscommunication and oncoming dangers had been more memorably made in other previous Band songs.
8. “Shoot Out In Chinatown”- A catchy chorus cures a lot of ills, and this oddity has one, so it’s eminently listenable. Among the ills that need curing: Pedestrian music in the verses, some cliched Oriental-sounding guitar riffs by Robertson, and an 0verall feeling that this was never intended to be more than filler.
7. “The Moon Struck One”- A kind of melancholy nursery rhyme/slash parable, it’s certainly unique. And it apparently inspired Bruce Springsteen as he was writing “Spirit In The Night” (he paraphrases Robertson’s lines about Little John being hurt and in the dirt.) Manuel saves the song by investing it with sonority and feeling rather than playing it as a novelty, which it sort of is.
6. “Volcano”- This is the type of come-on song which had usually been assigned to Helm in the past, but Danko is the right choice here for capturing the desperation of this wooer. Add in some punchy horns and a slinky sax solo by Hudson and you’ve got an unassumingly potent track.
5. “Last Of The Blacksmiths”- Robertson’s lyrics seem to expand beyond the plight of the blacksmiths into a wider lament for an entire way of life dying out (a recurring theme on the album), and the strain of that attempt shows a bit. Still, The Band does manage to captures some of the minor-key, topical drama of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” thanks to Richard Manuel’s impassioned performance.
4. “The River Hymn”- I can live with the nostalgia here because it’s rendered so lovingly. The song also features the best melody on the album, and Helm cradles the tune like a baby about to be baptized while his buddies Danko and Manuel sing to the heavens. A much-needed dose of pure prettiness to balance out an album that was downcast on the whole.
3. “4% Pantomime”- So what if it sounds like the whole thing was made up on the spot with no more inspiration than a couple of bottles of booze? Getting to hear two of the finest vocalists in rock history, Richard Manuel and Van Morrison, trade wails is more than enough to make this a winner. Plus, it provides a source of reckless fun sorely missing from the rest of the album.
2. “Life Is A Carnival”- The great Allen Toussaint really sends this opening track to another level with his horn arrangement. Every utterance by Danko and Helm seems to be punctuated by a blast of brass, each one coming in at a different angle. As a rhythm section, the pair keeps up with the funkiness of the guest players, while Robertson chimes in with energetic lead guitar. Even though the main metaphor is a bit facile, the overall effect of the music more than compensates.
1. “When I Paint My Masterpiece”- Dylan wrote it but Levon Helm hijacked it before Bob ever got a chance to put a good stamp on it. His vocal as an American buffeted about by European extravagances and annoyances is one of those indelible performances that he seemed to give with regularity. (Note there are no harmonies from his buddies here; you couldn’t improve or embellish his performance anyway.) Levon also plays mandolin while Manuel takes over on drums with his winningly ramshackle style. Hudson somehow captures both the romance of a moonlit gondola ride and the homesickness of the protagonist with his accordion. Proof they could still do it better than anybody else when the material was there.
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The Band’s third album, 1970’s Stage Fright, would have to have gone a long way to match its first two. Looking back on it now, the main criticism is probably that the tonal shifts between songs are more jarring here than they ever were on the opening pair, making for less of a smooth ride. Still, there are several top-notch efforts to recommend here, some of which have rightfully become signature songs of the group and others which deserve more attention. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Time To Kill”- The term “country rock” never seemed deep enough for what The Band actually played, even though they were sometimes lumped in with that grouping by lazy critics. Alas, this song fits the pedestrian nature of that categorization a bit too well.
9. “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”- This song definitely has its defenders, but I feel its nostalgia for old-time traveling shows is an end in itself. The music has its high points though, especially the horns of Garth Hudson and John Simon, who doesn’t produce on this album (The Band handled the duties themselves) but makes his presence felt here.
8. “Strawberry Wine”- You’ll notice that the more playful material is holding up the bottom end of these rankings; those songs just feel a little more forced than the more somber stuff this time around, as if chief songwriter Robbie Robertson was having a hard time committing to the raucousness and ribaldry. Still, Levon Helm, who co-wrote, delivers this fun opening track with enough gusto to get it by, and Hudson’s accordion always cures a lot of ills.
7. “Sleeping”- This is Richard Manuel’s lone songwriting credit on the album (shared with Robertson), the air of dreamy melancholy hanging heavy in the air as it has in so many of his previous efforts, albeit this time around without the same level of inspiration as on classics like “In A Station,” “Lonesome Suzie,” or “Whispering Pines.” Typically well-performed by his buddies though.
6. “Just Another Whistle Stop”- Robertson’s lyrics are a tad unfocused here, somewhat caught between a docile past and a frenzied present. The music is pretty straightforward as well, but it conveys a compelling sense of urgency nonetheless, seconded by an expressive, harried vocal by Manuel.
5. “All La Glory”- A sort of sequel to “When You Awake,” albeit more of an overt lullaby, this track captures The Band at its most gentle and charming. Helm’s shows his vocal versatility with a performance of sweet vulnerability, nailing the tone of Robertson’s unfussy yet pretty lyrics. Manuel’s vocal talent naturally overshadowed his instrumental capabilities, but his solo on the Hammond organ here is a scene-stealer.
4. “The Shape I’m In”- At this point in their career, they were more convincing on the addled, agitated tracks, probably because that’s how they felt under the pressure of critical adoration and touring obligations. Robertson’s prickly one-liners certainly hit home here, aided and abetted by Manuel’s ragged, impassioned vocal. It always helps when you have the talent to mine your worries and woes for cathartic rock and roll.
3. “Daniel And The Sacred Harp”- So what if it’s an old story? Who told it better than these guys? The music is a mesmerizing mix of hoe-down and gospel, conjured by Helm’s soothing 12-string, Manuel’s herky-jerky drumming, Danko’s winking fiddle, Robertson’s soulful fills, and Hudson’s angelic organ. With that frame in place, the tale of a musician selling his soul for talent seems both old as time and thrillingly novel.
2. “Stage Fright”- Robertson somehow turned his fear of performing for an audience into a universal lament when it could have come off sounding like the uptown problems of a rock star. A lot of credit goes to Danko, whose twitching, chirping lead vocal is a marvel of idiosyncratic soul. Other than Hudson’s typically inventive organ, the players mostly deliver for locked-in support here, respecting the value of a great singer tearing into a resonant lyric. Even with virtuosos like The Band, sometimes the equation is as simple as that.
1. “The Rumor”- Perhaps their most underrated song. The music is ominous without being overbearing, starring Robertson’s guitar at its most melodic. (Heck, the instrumental break sounds downright Beatlesque.) The lyrical baton-passing is handled effortlessly, each performer adding his own touch: Danko sounds like a man on the edge of snapping, Helm is all wounded wisdom, and Manuel brings it home with help from his buddies, singing as if he’s trying to blow the malicious gossip away with the desperate compassion in his voice. It’s a far cry in tone from the joyous testifying of “We Can Talk”, yet, in it’s own way, it’s just as powerful and moving.
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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.)