by Bill HollandProgram notes for the Band tribute concert in Rockville, Maryland, 08.10.2005.
Bill Holland and Rent's Due were Washington-area staples in the '70s and early '80s. Holland still performs and records occasionally, and is the Washington Bureau Chief for Billboard. For more about Bill and his work, see billholland.net.
Thirty-seven years ago, in August of 1968, Capitol Records released the debut album of The Band, "Music From Big Pink," to an unsuspecting public.
It stunned a lot of pop music listeners. No one was expecting to hear what amounted to a rock-era aural daguerrotype.
The opening lines of "Tears of Rage" co-written by The Band's pianist Richard Manuel and Bob Dylan, made it clear the group was not interested in offering up a danceable radio single nor giving the public some what-is-hip dazzle. It was the first cut on the album, and it was a slow-tempo lament -- the first song people would first hear on the album. Make no mistake -- it was a throwdown.
Through a guitar line played through a swirling Leslie speaker by Robbie Robertson, Manuel sang to a daughter gone wild or wrong:
"We carried you in our arms on Independence Day And now you'd throw us all aside and put us all away. Oh, what dear daughter 'neath the sun could treat a father so? To wait upon him hand and foot and always tell him, 'No.'"
I remember hearing the album soon after its release. I was in Eugene, Oregon, in a record shop. The owner had just received it and he put it on the shop system, on track one, side one. After that first verse, everybody in the whole place looked up, with a collective "What...is...this?" look on their faces. It's a time I remember oh so well.
The Band's music and lyric surely had its influences -- Woody Guthrie's okie-folk, "ole timey" string bands, Sam Cooke gospel, carnival calliope, Merle Travis two-beat finger-picking, Ronnie Hawkins rockabilly, Curtis Mayfield soul licks, Bob Dylan's disconnected dreamscapes.
But the group's music was its own, and the songs proved to be as much Americana musical narratives of the South as were Duke Ellington for black urbia or Aaron Copeland for the West. It was as far away from power-chord-acid-rock, tie-dye or artsy-lefty-pol rock as one could get.
Four of the five members of this ensemble group (a musical confederation usually reserved for jazz and classical groups) sang, and three had great voices -- Manuel, drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko. The how and why this is so involves the mystery of how music listeners interpret vocal timbre -- to many who heard the songs, the singers somehow possessed the ability to express grief, frustration, frisson, jauntiness, endurance..
A blogger has written that when he first heard The Band as a college student in '68, he could immediately tell from the music that he was listening to "grown men, men with experience behind them."
The Band employed a typical instrumental rock band lineup -- guitars, piano, organ, bass, drums. But Garth Hudson chose the Lowrey organ, with its wheezing and hooting "stops" that hinted of the carnival rather than the sleeker Hammond, which had already become the soul-jazz, gospel and r&b instrument of choice.
The group also utilized accordion, fiddle, clavinet, mandolin and odd horns such as a sousaphone in the instumental mix. They could switch instruments.
Out of that vocal and instrumental general store they created lyrics and instrumental textures saturated in Appalachian, Hoosier, Creole or even Arcadian colors.
Again, all this was new (yet old). Remember, in the minds of most rock fans in 1968, there was not yet a compartment for an approach that wasn't either r&b (or a manic, rockabilly or frat-rock derivative), California-surfer, British-Invasion or pop bubblegum. "Big Pink" became the word-of-mouth album in the summer and fall of '68.
Even the inimitable Hendrix, creating his own fireworks out of feedback r&b and blues detritus, didn't take us that far out -- or in.
The music on their masterpiece 1969 second album, "The Band," got them the January 12, 1970 cover of Time. It didn't hurt that the album cover (by designer Bob Cato) featured an on-target match of a backwoods-brown cover with Eliott Landy's black-and-white photos revealing five scraggly characters right out of Walker Evans...or Matthew Brady.
Arkansas-raised Helm, with his confident, unapologetically hillbilly voice, emerged as the unlikely vocal poster boy. (Re-play in your mind the rascally "Rag Mama Rag" or the magestic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.")
People wondered: was The Band's music radical or reactionary? Liberal or conservative? Well, oral history doesn't usually wave a political banner. Robertson and crew were concerned more with telling the stories of what rewards or ruin the times and politics played out on people.
The group had somehow metamorphosed in the mid-'60s from a working-stiff bar band to a creative collective before they were brought to the attention of Capitol. Why they decided to pursue their unprecedented rural musical vision of America -- at a time when the counterculture had turned away from the nation -- still comes as an amazement.
Hanging with Bob Dylan would be the easy answer. But not a complete one. Even their joint "Basement Tapes" recordings, while they hint at the change, but don't explain the whole story.
Playing across the U.S. and Europe as the backup band for Dylan in '65 and '66 was certainly a component. Being onstage to witness the crowds booing Dylan as he broke the rules of pop music in real time had to have stretched their minds. So maybe after Roberston, the main songwriter, and his partners had thought out and written their first songs, they decided: man, the game has changed -- so let's put this stuff out there and see what sticks.
Robertson has said that by the mid-'60s he had grown tired of "jamming" in bands -- playing hot-licks guitar over cover tunes and predictable song forms. "It was time to shuffle the deck and concentrate on the songwriting," he said, time to employ his guitar more as a color instrument at the service of the song.
Not only were he and the other the Band members generally a few years older than most of their contemporaries, but, in terms of rock and roll time, they were several generations older.They had been on the scene, as teenage roadhouse warriors, since 1958 or so. Rock and roll was was raw and simple then. Young Elvis Presley hadn't yet even been diluted.
So these five were veterans, and by 1968, in the era of the first "concept albums,"they were ready to enlarge the scope of what could be done in rock music.
Until they called it quits in 1976, the group went on to release a total of seven studio albums, plus the live "Rock of Ages" and of course "The Last Waltz." Three sold enough to go gold. But only one, "The Band," went platinum -- and not until well in the CD era, in 1991. So they were never superstars, in the Rolling Stones, Elton John or Areosmith sense of the word.
However, today, people are still listening, and Capitol has as least kept "Big Pink," "The Band," "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots" in print for years. There are any number of anthologies and live concert albums also available. And a 111-song superbox set with tons of rarities is set for September release.
All the albums are flecked with song diamonds, including certainly a couple dozen first-class, timeless songs and performances. They don't sound dated because, as Robertson has said, they weren't "polka-dot psychedelic" to begin with. The songs were purposely created to show the patina of tough times. Honestly played hardscabble tales of love and loss never go out of fashion.
Tonight, this assemblage of veteran Washington area musicians -- all of whom jumped at the chance to perform The Band's songs here at Strathmore -- offers up a musical toast to these gifted artists with respect and admiration, and, even today, a bit of awe.