Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Band By The Band

http://static01.nyt.com/images/2012/04/20/arts/HELM1-obit/HELM1-obit-articleLarge.jpg(The Band)

There are periodic outbursts of musical creativity in the rock n roll era.  August through October of 1969 was one of those moments when a slew of albums now considered classic were released including Led Zeppelin II (featuring Whole Lotta Love and Heartbreaker); Stand Up, the album that established Jethro Tull; Arthur, another esoteric gem from The Kinks; what many consider, for better or worse, the first progressive rock album, In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson; Green River from Creedence Clearwater Revival; Santana's first album; Janis Joplin's first solo effort; Blind Faith's first, and only, album, and, on September 26, Abbey Road, the last album recorded (though not the last released) by The Beatles.  THC discussed an earlier such period in Six Months in Rock.

On September 22, 1969, four days before Abbey Road, The Band released its second album titled "The Band".  It's the best of the bunch and the only oneTHC still listens to regularly.

The music is difficult to categorize.  It's not exactly rock, it's not really country, it's sort of, but not quite, old-timey music.  Americana is the label sometimes applied which is funny since four of the five band members were Canadians yet they had the sensibility required to capture the sound and feel of an America that had disappeared well before 1969.  If one were to try to describe the time and place in which the songs are set it'd be from the end of the Civil War through the Depression with locales primarily in the South but also including the Great Plains and Midwest and mostly in rural white America.  The Band sounds of the time about which they are singing about and it's a collection of songs by turn witty and bawdy, poignant and knowing, sympathetic and hopeful, nostalgic and fun.

The five members of the group (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and the lone American, Levon Helm) originally came together in 1960 as the backing band for Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins (here they are doing Bo Diddley's Who Do You Love?).  Becoming known as Levon & The Hawks they came to Bob Dylan's attention when he was looking for a band to tour with in 1965 as he made the transition from folk to electric music.  The Hawks toured with Dylan into 1966 when he had his still mysterious motorcycle accident and stopped recording and touring.  http://40.media.tumblr.com/0abdf63a2828e30d8e4973579fdc729d/tumblr_mhxecxfK391qzy30io1_1280.jpg(Levon & The Hawks; from L to R, Danko, Manuel, Helm, Hudson, Robertson; from tumblr)
A year later, Dylan invited the Hawks to join him in the Woodstock, New York area where in the fall of 1967 they recorded what became known as The Basement Tapes in the ranch house the band was living in, which they had named Big Pink (see Chest Fever).  Available at first only in limited bootleg editions, with a select group of songs officially released in 1975 and the full collection not available until 2014, The Basement Tapes are a collection of more than 100 songs, some Dylan originals (Tears Of Rage; You Ain't Goin' Nowhere; This Wheel's On Fire - co-written with Rick Danko) and others traditional country, folks and blues tunes (for a full list go here).

After working with Dylan, the group embarked on recording its first album and renamed itself as The Band.  Released in July 1968, Music From Big Pink was a critical and commercial success and contained what would become their most famous song, The Weight.

At the end of the year they went to Los Angeles to begin recording their next album which was to become The Band.

The Band was unusual in two respects - there wasn't one lead singer; there were three, Danko, Helm and Manuel and, with the exception of Robertson, they all played multiple instruments.  On The Band this was the instrumental lineup:

Danko:    Bass, fiddle, trombone
Helm:      Drums, mandolin, guitar
Hudson:  Organ, clavinet, piano, accordion, melodica, soprano, tenor & baritone saxophone, trumpet
Manuel:  Piano, drums, baritone saxophone, harmonica
Robertson:  Guitars

Perhaps THC should add a third distinctive aspect  - their distinctively ragged harmonies.  

And ably assisted by engineer John Simon who also contributed tuba, piano, tenor saxophone and horns as well as doing a fine job on the production.  In addition to producing The Band's first album, Simon had done Cheap Thrills, the debut album from Big Brother & The Holding Company, the spectacularly good even fifty years later debut of Blood, Sweat & Tears (The Child Is Father To The Man) as well as working with Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen.
Let's walk through the record.  The songs are great but as an album it holds together and works best listening to the tunes in the order intended.  Links are provided to each song.


Across The Great Divide
(Lead Vocal: Manuel) 
Standin' by your window in pain
A pistol in your hand
And I beg you, dear Molly, girl,
Try and understand your man the best you can

Across the Great Divide
Just grab your hat, and take that ride
Get yourself a bride
And bring your children down to the river side

Rag Mama Rag
(Lead Vocal: Helm)

A rollicking, barnburner of a song.  "Hailstones beatin' on the roof, the bourbon is a hundred proof".  Manuel, Danko and Helm switched instruments with Richard on drums (listen to his clever playing behind the lyric "we could be relaxing in my sleeping bag"), Rick on fiddle and Levon on mandolin.  Listen to Garth's rinky-tink piano interlude starting at 1:45 and John Simon contributes the underlying tuba part that holds the whole thing together (now there's a phrase you don't often hear in connection with rock music).

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
(Lead Vocal: Helm)

Along with The Weight and Up On Cripple Creek this became a concert highlight for the group and one of its most covered songs.  In the America of 2015 will anyone ever sing it again?  Here's a perspective from 1978 by Jonathan Taplin, the Band's tour manager at the time (later a Hollywood film producer and currently Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California Annenbergy School for Communication and Journalism).
It was May and they'd just finished it the night before. They said it'd come out fast and hard and clean. It was just the most moving experience I'd had for, God, I don't know how long. Because for me, being a Northern liberal kid who'd been involved in the Civil Rights movement and had a whole attitude towards the South, well I loved the music but I didn't understand where white Southerners were coming from. And to have it all in just three and a half minutes, the sense of dignity and place and tradition, all those things … Well, the next day after I'd recovered, I went to Robbie and asked him, "How did that come out of you?" And he just said that being with Levon so long in his life and being in that place at that time … It was so inside him that he wanted to write the song right at Levon, to let him know how much those things meant to him.
Quote is from The Band website.
Like my father before me
I will work the land
And like my brother above me
Who took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can't raise a Cain back up
When he's in defeat
A nice touch to use the name Cain in a song about a civil war.

Here's the studio version but THC prefers this live version from The Last Waltz with an even better vocal from Levon.

When You Awake
(Lead Vocal: Danko)

Love the opening of this tune.

And it contains much useful advice:
Ole showed me the fork in the road
You can take to the left or go straight to the right,
Use your days and save your nights
Be careful where you step, and watch what ya eat,
Sleep with a light and you got it beat

Ole warned me, it's a mean old world,
The street don't greet ya, yes, it's true
But what am I supposed to do
Read the writing on the wall
I heard it when I was very small

You may be right and you might be wrong
I ain't gonna worry all day long
Snow's gonna come and the frost gonna bite
My old car froze up last night
Ain't no reason to hang my head
I could wake up in the mornin' dead
And if I thought it would do any good
I'd stand on the rock where Moses stood.

Up On Cripple Creek
(Lead Vocal: Helm)

The best known song from the album and the one that got the most airplay at the time.  A takeoff on Cripple Creek, an old folk/bluegrass tune.

All the way from Lake Charles, Louisiana:
Now there's one thing in the whole wide world, I sure would like to see
That's when that little love of mine, dips her doughnut in my tea (hee-hee)
That weird frog-like croaking sound you hear throughout the song is Garth Hudson playing a clavinet through a wah-wah pedal, a technique he pioneered and which was used on a lot of funk records in the 1970s (Stevie Wonder used it frequently; listen to Superstition).  For more on the use of the clavinet on Cripple Creek and Levon's drumming technique watch this.

Whispering Pines
(Lead Vocal: Manuel)

In 1969 this was the song THC liked least on the album. Today it's one of his favorites.  The haunting melancholy voice of Richard Manuel, Garth's ethereal meandering organ and Robertson's lyrics make for an unforgettable combination that stays with the listener even as it ends on a tentative but hopeful note.
If you find me in a gloom, or catch me in a dream
Inside my lonely room, there is no in between
Whispering pines, rising of the tide
If only one star shines
That's just enough to get inside
I will wait until it all goes 'round
With you in sight, the lost are found

Foghorn through the night, calling out to sea
Protect my only light, 'cause she once belonged to me
Let the waves rush in, let the seagulls cry
For if I live again, these hopes will never die
I can feel you standing there
But I don't see you anywhere

Standing by the well, wishing for the rains
Reaching to the clouds, for nothing else remains
Drifting in a daze, when evening will be done
Try looking through a haze
At an empty house, in the cold, cold sun
I will wait until it all goes round
With you in sight, the lost are found


Jemima Surrender
(Lead Vocal: Helm)

A man on a mission.  And a very funny song.

Jemima surrender, I'm gonna give it to you,
Ain't no pretender, wanna see my tattoo?

Rockin' Chair
(Lead Vocal: Manuel)

Touching.  I'm gonna sit for a spell with Willie and enjoy the time we have left.
Hang around, Willie boy,
Don't you raise the sails anymore
It's for sure, I've spent my whole life at sea
And I'm pushin' age seventy-three
Now there's only one place that was meant for me:

Slow down, Willie boy,
Your heart's gonna give right out on you
It's true, and I believe I know what we should do
Turn to stern and point to shore,
The seven seas won't carry us no more

Hear the sound, Willie boy,
The Flyin' Dutchman's on the reef
It's my belief
We've used up all our time,
This hill's to steep to climb,
And the days that remain ain't worth a dime
Oh, to be home again,
Down in old Virginny,
With my very best friend,
They call him Ragtime Willie
I can't wait to sniff that air,
Dip that snuff, I won't have no care,
That big rockin' chair won't go nowhere 
The only song on the album with no drums.  Levon Helm sings harmony and plays mandolin.  In the video below you can see and hear commentary about The Band's vocal style on Rockin' Chair.


Look Out Cleveland 
(Lead Vocal: Danko)

Better take shelter or, as the The Rolling Stones would state more emphatically later that same year; Gimme Shelter.   
Look Out, Cleveland, the storm is comin' through,
And it's runnin' right up on you.

(Lead Vocal: Manuel)

The tale of a dedicated small-time thief who keeps landing in jail but loves his work, all told in 12/8 time.
Oh, Jawbone, when did you first go wrong?
Oh, Jawbone, where is it you belong?
A three-time loser, you'll never learn,
Lay down your tools before you burn
Ya keep on runnin' and hidin' your face,
Spreadin' your heat all over the place

I'm a thief, and I dig it!
I'm up on a reef, I'm gonna rig it!
I'm a thief, and I dig it!

The Unfaithful Servant
(Lead Vocal: Danko)

THC would still like to know the answer to these questions:
Unfaithful servant, I hear you're leavin' soon in the mornin'
What did you do to the lady, that she's gonna have to send you away?
Unfaithful servant, you don't have to say you're sorry,
If you done it just for the spite, or did you do it just for the glory?
Rick Danko's voice conveys the mutual regrets of servant and master, but the song's ultimate meaning always hovers just out of reach with its  Biblical echoes and closing with its gentle benediction:
Unfaithful servant, you'll learn to find your place
I can see it in your smile, and, yes, I can see it in your face
The mem'ries will linger on,
But the good old days, they're all gone
Oh, lonesome servant, can't you see,
We're still one and the same
Just you and me 
That segues into a subtle guitar part from Robertson and then ends with the loopy horns (which first appear at about 1:30 earlier in the song) from Hudson, Danko, Manuel and John Simon.

This video provides some background on the recording of the song.

King Harvest (Has Surely Come) 
(Lead Vocal: Manuel) 

There's a carnival at the edge of town.

THC's favorite and a great choice to close the album.  Lyrics and music come together perfectly with an unusual structure where the chorus is subdued but the verse raucous.  Listen to the drum patterns and accents Levon employs, Robertson's guitar at the end (one of his rare solos) and Manuel's pleading vocal:
A dry summer, and then come fall,
Which I depend on most of all
Hey, rainmaker, can't you hear the call?
Please let these crops grow tall!
"Some of the lyrics came out of a discussion we had one night about the times we’d seen and all had in common. It was an expression of feeling that came from five people. The group wanted to do one song that took in everything we could muster about life at that moment in time. It was the last thing we cut in California, and it was that magical feeling of ‘King Harvest’ that pulled us through."  (Levon Helm from The Band website)
Here's the studio version.  Below is a live cut.

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