by Stephen DavisLiner Notes (Pyramid R2 71564).
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Jericho was the place where the band won its first big military victory. A stronghold commanding the valley of the lower Jordan River, Jericho was taken out by Joshua when the city wouldn't surrender to the children of Israel, who were in no mind to fool around on the march out of Egypt.
"And the seven priests bearing the seven rams' horns before the Ark of the Lord went on continually, and blew with the horns. And it came to pass when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall of the city fell down flat, and they took the city and utterly destroyed all that was in it."
Now it has also come to pass that this album, Jericho, represents another victory for The Band. This is the legendary American group's first important release since the soundtrack to The Last Waltz in 1978, and represents The Band's first album of new music since Northern Lights, Southern Cross in 1975.
It seems to me that after two decades of retirement, a new album by The Band should be a cause for national rejoicing like an unpublished Twain novel or an undiscovered painting by Thomas Hart Benton. The Band's best music is already burned into the consciousness of its generation. Its surviving members have between them more than a hundred years experience of American roots music, from southern levee camp songs through Bluegrass and the Blues, country, R&B. church music, medicine shows, rockabilly, rock & roll, rock. The Band came closer to defining the times we've lived through than any other group of musicians I can think of, although the group was never political or even topical. When we listen to The Band, we interface with the Tradition, the Lineage, the Lore. The Band's vibe is unspoken and implied, with the ephemerality of woodsmoke in October. There's a stoic dignity here, a sense of honor and integrity that can only be bred in a group of musicians whose senior masters have been playing together for thirty five years. Remember that they were the headliners at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair back in '69, but The Band has never appeared on MTV or even made a video at this writing. They are grown men who climbed the mountain, spoke to the gods, and returned to the valley, where they again became mortal. But last week I heard them play a set amid the colored lights of a country fairground on a warm summer's night, and for my money they're still the best band in America. Take my word for it. When The Band is on and crackin', whether it's an old blues, a Dylan song, or "Rag Mama Rag,"; you can still hear the walls between musical styles come a-tumbling down, just like they did at the battle of Jericho.
Back in 1968, Music From Big Pink came out in July like a cultural hurricane, and no one who wasn't there can even begin to appreciate the impact this record had in that year of near civil war in America, one generation against another and itself. Eric Clapton has said the album changed his life, as it changed the lives of many who, thus inspired, dropped the whole pretentious psychedelic pose in search of the answer to Richard Manuel's plaintive question from "In A Station";--can't we have something to feel?
Not many people who bought the album understood that this was the "debut" of what had been for ten years the best rock & roll band in North America. It had descended from The Ron Hawkins Quartet, which left Arkansas in 1958 upon Levon Helm's graduation from high school to seek fame and fortune in Canada playing what Bob Dylan calls "the pure dixie dialect of rockabilly, the back-beat of America, the entire landscape." Between 1959 and 1961 they developed into Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, honing their craft on a hard-ass circuit that extended from Canada down to Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Their Cadillac had a teardrop trailer with a flying hawk painted on the side, and it was built for speed since Levon was at the wheel. Robbie Robertson, a 16 year old guitar player, signed on in 1960. Rick Danko was kidnapped the following year from his home in Simcoe, Ont., to play bass, followed shortly by Richard Manuel from Stratford, who starred in the local teenage band, the Rockin' Revols, and could play the kind of take-no-prisoners piano required by the Hawks. Garth Hudson, a classically-trained organist and R&B horn aficionado from London, Ont., was finally persuaded to loin the group in late 1961, after three years of trying, and took the Hawks to what Levon reverently describes as another level entirely.
By 1963, when Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks parted company, they were generally regarded as the best and hardest rocking band anywhere and already had a reputation as hellacious characters who were ready for anything. They continued working as Levon & The Hawks (and sometimes as The Canadian Squires) until one night in 1965 the phone rang backstage at Tony Mart's Nite Spot in Somers Point, New Jersey. Levon took the call. It was Bob Dylan, asking if they wanted to play the Hollywood Bowl in a couple weeks.
In September 1965, the Hawks became Bob Dylan's band. They helped Dylan make his epochal transition from folk laureate to the ghost of electricity. Some of their collaborative performances are said to be among the best in the history of this music. Bob Dylan and The Band are twined in the annals of the 1960s in a way that will live long beyond all our lifetimes.
Following Dylan to Woodstock after his 1966 motorcycle injury curtailed a world tour, the Hawks began to prepare their own music. Bob Dylan came to jam and write songs in the basement of their rented house, and these songs turned into Music From Big Pink, The Basement Tapes, and parts of John Wesley Harding. From the start, The Band was hailed as avatars of a new sensibility. They had three singers, a rhythm section that could make you cry, and Garth Hudson. In 1969 they recorded their masterpiece, The Band, whose melodies and cadences immediately took their place in the great American songbook and got them on the cover of Time Magazine in January, 1970.
The Band was the best live group in the world in those days. Between them they played seventeen instruments, and they switched around onstage like a football team responding to the quarterback's audibles. They wanted the concerts to sound like the records, so the performances had a discipline and sense of work to them. These guys weren't playing music, they were working it. "The Band never sucked snakes onstage," Levon told Rolling Stone. "Never wore no dresses either, never sold a million records or got attacked by groupies." The truth is that this group was so good it was ridiculous.
This writer recently listened to all The Band's recordings and was extremely impressed by the consistently high caliber of music that was often recorded to fulfill contractual obligations. Stage Fright (1970), Cahoots (1971), the live set Rock of Ages (1972), Moondog Matinee (1973) and Northern Lights, Southern Cross (1975) all contain sublime moments that today feel like astral travel to a different world and yet live as contemporary works of art. I'm thinking of "Life Is A Carnival" or The Band's version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Garth Hudson's nickname in the group is Honey Boy, because he's the one who stays late in the studio, sweetening up those tracks.
In 1976 Robbie Robertson decided to end his involvement with the group. His final show was released as an album and film in 1978, The Last Waltz. The Band reformed in 1983 without Robertson and worked as a unit until Richard Manuel's death in 1986.
Today The Band's six members all live in the Woodstock area. Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm are the mainstays from the original group. Reinforcements include Jim Weider on guitar, Randy Ciarlante on drums, and Richard Bell on piano, all great musicians and fitting heirs to the group's legacy. (Richard Bell joined the next generation of Hawks after The Band left, and then was stolen by Albert Grossman for Janis Joplin's legendary Full Tilt Boogie Band.) Go see them if they're playing in your town; you'll get a wonderful mix of American music played with the purity of soul that these musicians have always been able to deliver.
This album, Jericho, is a tribute to and an example of that mix. The Band has written some great new songs, like "Jericho" and "Move To Japan." They cover Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" and Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" with an authority that gives these songs new meaning. There are a couple of Muddy Waters songs in the mix, as well as new material written or co-written by longtime Band colleagues Henry Glover, Stan Szelest, Artie Traum, Colin Linden and Jules Shear. Producer John Simon has worked with The Band since Big Pink; he is an artist in his own right, and knows better than anyone in the world how to get that patented Band sound--voices and horns, weeping tom-toms and the mysteries of Garth's keyboards.
Even the late Richard Manuel makes an appearance, calculated to take your breath away. And it does.
An important point: despite The Band's honorable place in history and its impending induction into the Hall of Fame, this group is no fossil. It's a living, fire-breathing R&B orchestra whose music has sustained its loyal audience for four decades and promises more good music to come, if only we keep the faith and let it roll. Viva The Band forever.
-- Stephen Davis - August 1993 [co-author, This Wheel's On Fire]