by Chris MorrisLiner Notes from CD Release (Capitol 93592).
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By the time The Band's Moondog Matinee was released by Capitol Records in 1973, there had been a boom of rock 'n' roll revival in America. In the late '60s and early '70s, listeners had rediscovered the primitive, electrifying rock sounds of the '50s, in both new recordings by such titans of the first rock era as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and the retro shenanigans of parodists like Sha Na Na.
But the Band's album of nine diverse rock 'n' roll and r&b covers (and one non-rock ringer), which came near the close of the revival period, couldn't be construed merely as a cash-in on trendy nostalgia. Moondog Matinee was as personal a project as the albums of original songs that preceded it--it was the group's trip back to the roots that raised them.
Before they were The Band, and before they served as Bob Dylan's backup band, the group was known as The Hawks, the touring combo for the rowdy Arkansas-born rock 'n' roll singer Ronnie Hawkins. Fellow Razorback Levon Helm joined Hawkins at the age of 15 in 1958. Helm was a seasoned hand by the time teenaged Robbie Robertson signed on as roadie, bass player, and eventual lead guitarist in 1960, after Hawkins had relocated to Toronto. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson were recruited from other Canadian units soon thereafter.
The Hawks were a rough-and-tumble, blues and rockabilly-infused road crew that specialized in playing, in Hawkins words, "them- knockdown, drag-out joints where you'd play for an hour and fight for an hour." Only a few of Hawkins' studio recordings for Roulette Records represent this group's sweat-and-gunpowder live performance ethos: Robertson's caterwauling guitar solos on such Hawkins tracks as "Who Do You Love" and "Bo Diddley" give an indication of The Hawks' all-cylinders firepower. (Both numbers can be heard on a recent Rhino Records compilation, The Best of Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks.)
The Hawks parted company with their mentor in 1963, but some of their early work as The Band, notably the high-impact rockabilly-styled "Look Out Cleveland" on The Band, encompassed the saber-edged leanness of their early rock 'n' roll days. It wasn't until Moondog Matinee that The Band essayed a full-blown tribute to the music they played as rock apprentices and the environment they flourished in.
The album title saluted pioneer disc jockey Alan Freed's original Cleveland radio show, "Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party." Even the original packaging of the album, which featured Edward Kasper's evocative cover painting of the group members taking a cigarette break outside a nightclub and the original Capitol album label, sought to conjure the atmosphere of an earlier time, an era when rock 'n' roll was a music of soulful intimacy.
The album itself was programmed like a club set--a mixture of rockers and ballads, with a "break song" (an instrumental version the haunting zither theme for Carol Reed's film The Third Man) smack in the middle.
The selections cut a wide swath through rock and r&b history, with titles originally cut by Clarence "Frogman" Henry ("Ain't Got No Home"), Allen Toussaint ("Holy Cow"), Bobby Blue Bland ("Share Your Love"), Chuck Berry ("Promised Land"), the Platters ("The Great Pretender"), Fats Domino ("I'm Ready"), LaVern Baker ("Saved"), and Sam Cooke ("A Change Is Gonna Come").
Perhaps the touchstone of the album was "Mystery Train", recorded by both bluesman Junior Parker and the young Elvis Presley during the Sun Records' epochal period in Memphis and recut by The Band with some new lyrics by Robertson. Certainly The Band's rendition was fresh in critic Greil Marcus' mind when he entitles his landmark 1975 study of rock music Mystery Train. (The book contains some of the best work available on The Band's music and influences, and is acknowledged with gratitude as a partial source for these notes.)
On Moondog Matinee, The Band tears into this storied material with bawdy panache on the rockers and surging emotion on the ballads. Some of the group's most uninhibited vocal performances are here: Levon Helm's bumptious "Ain't Got No Home," Rick Danko's devout "A Change Is Gonna Come," and (perhaps best of all) Richard Manuel's torrid, soaring "Share Your Love." Their instrumental interplay was seldom more spirited. Listen to the subdued clickety-clack of "Mystery Train," the revival- tent shakeout of "Saved," and Garth Hudson's bubbling work on "Third Man Theme."
There have been other albums on which rock performers have looked back on their sources--John Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll, released only two years after Moondog Matinee, may be the one most similar in intent. But The Band's fond homage to the musical tributaries that flowed into their own music is probably the heartiest and most heartfelt retrospective of its kind. It's as much fun as a rompin' stompin' night of drinking and dancing in a neighborhood bucket o' blood, and as fresh today as the dusty, noisy, cataclysmic 45 rpm singles that inspired it.
-- Chris Morris - Billboard Magazine