The Band beats odds to delight fans
by Liam LaceyA review of a "reunion" concert by The Band at the Canadian National Exhibition Bandshell, July 4 1983. The review was published in Globe & Mail July 6, 1983. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute. Thanks to Serge Daniloff for sending us a copy of the original article.
For the first 10 minutes, the feeling was something akin to what it must have been on the Titanic - the band playing Nearer My God To Thee on the deck, voices screaming and water, water everywhere.
The Band's reunion and Toronto homecoming at the Canadian National Exhibition Bandshell Monday night was all but washed away in the rain, and everything pointed toward a near disaster. Fewer than 3,000 people chose to brave the miserable weather, the public adress system made occasional feedback shrieks and the singing of Levon Helm and Rick Danko was lost in the drizzly sound mix.
Of course, the Band's main creative figure, songwriter Robbie Robertson, wasn't part of the reunion - which is a little like having a Ferrari without the engine. Along with the line-up of Danko, Helm, Richard Manuel and the group's gray-haired patriarch, Garth Hudson, there were four other musicians on stage - the Cate Brothers Band, which has been Helm's favorite musical companions for the past three years.
But as deep a hole as the band was in, within minutes, it had climbed out smiling.
Earnestly, the musicians on stage went to work, slowly gaining both their own confidence and the audience's confidence in them. At first, they chugged along raggedly into each song, and then they hit the right groove, each performer finding his slot in that familiar rolling, churning stride that is unmistakably The Band.
By the fourth song, with Danko singing "The Shape I'm In" in his eerily sincere quaver, the audience was with the group completely, and the rain was forgotten. Danko clearly pleased the audience, raising his hands in a victory gesture, and the crowd didn't stop dancing for the rest of the night.
Danko and Helm have toured as a duo for the past few months, creating a musical pairing that outshines anything short of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee at their peak. With the presence of the keyboardists Manuel and Hudson, the rest of the picture fell into place.
Although they played such Band material as "Up On Cripple Creek", "The Weight" and "Stage Fright", among others, it would be impossible to accuse The Band of catering a nostalgia market. To begin with, The Band's music has always been "nostalgic" in the sense that it serves as a kind of encyclopedic synthesis of American music of the South, with the shades of travelling shows, circus, gospel, blues and country all in one pot.These songs felt like folk songs to begin with, so Monday night's singalongs had none of the deathly mindless repetition that makes most reunions so insufferable.
Helm, in particular, has been the guiding spirit behind one of The Band's more attractive features, its insistence that the music and not the trappings come first. To watch him performing his butt-shaking versions of such standards as "Caledonia" or "Milkcow Boogie" is to witness one of the great natural joys in the world of music.
To listen to these musicians, who played together on the road for 16 years before the original break-up, is an education in just how important respect for music is.