The Band is back
And Boy, are they good!
by Blair JacksonAn article on how Jericho was recorded. Published in Mix magazine, April 1994. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Thanks to Serge Daniloff for sending us a copy of the original article.
It's been nearly two decades since The Band - once universally acclaimed as one of the best groups in America - put out an album of new music. And it's been almost 18 years since The Last Waltz, the epic (and very well documented) final concert by the group's original line-up. Robbie Robertson, the group's guitarist, principal songwriter and the instigator of the original "retirement," has stayed true to his pledge to stay off the road and make his own albums.
But The Band didn't die at The Last Waltz. The remaining members have periodically regrouped to tour, augmenting their line-up with any number of fine players through the years. And though certainly Robertson's stinging leads and his sheer presence have been missed by Band fans, one sometimes forgets that the sound of The Band was so much more: It was the lead vocals of Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel; the rich keyboard textures of the group's true musical genius, Garth Hudson; the unique blend of voices: the snapping, cracking rhythm section of Danko and Helm; the incredible variety of instruments played by everyone - from fiddle to saxophone to accordion.
The Robertson-less Band first got serious about recording an album in the mid-80's, but they suffered a series of setback that nearly iced the group for good. In 1986, pianist Richard Manuel killed himself while The Band was on tour in Florida. Then, Manuel's replacement, long time colleague Stan Szelest (who goes back to the pre-Band days when the group toured as The Hawks, backing Ronnie Hawkins) died suddenly of a heart attack in 1991. But Danko, Helm and Hudson plugged on, eventually bolstering their core with a second drummer, Randy Carliante, versatile guitarist Jim Weider, and pianist Richard Bell (who'd joined The Hawks after The Band split off from Hawkins). Everywhere they played, this new Band wowed audiences by offering a tasty mix of the group's classics and old R&B and blues tunes stragith out of their bar-band days as The Hawks. Eventually they signed a deal with Pyramid Records to make a new album, and after more than a year of work, the record, titled Jericho, hit the stores late last fall.
And what a delightful surprise it is! All the trademarks of the rootsy and eclectic Band sound are very much in evidence, yet it is no cheap throwback to the group's glory days. It's 1990s Band music, and it feels right. With it's punchy horns wheedling keys and Levon Helm's backwoodsy vocal, the lead-off track "Remedy" instantly shows the group's capability. Over the course of 11 more tunes, they confidently traverse myriad styles but never stray too far from familiar Band terrain - ballads and blues tunes and R&B-flavoured rockers that paint vivid pictures of a real and mythological America.
Among the gems are Dylan's stirring story-song "Blind Willie McTell"; a definite version of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" driven by mandolin, accordion and those sweet Band harmonies; "The Caves of Jericho", about a mine disaster, which is probably the closest to the classic Band style; a swinging spin on Muddy Water's "The Same Thing"; the achingly beautiful Danko-sung tribute to Richard Manuel, "Too Soon Gone" (co-written by Szelest); and a lovely heart-breaking vocal by Manuel himself on "Country Boy", cut less than a year before his death.
The Band co-produced the album with engineer/producer Aaron L. Hurwitz, with some early guidance from their frequent associate John Simon (who, through the years, has been sort of the equivalent of the "Fifth Beatle"). Most of the basic tracks and some overdubs were cut at Helm's home studio in Woodstock, N.Y., (site of their great early triumphs, before they moved westward in the early '70s). Additional tracks were cut at nearby studios such as Bearsvill, Nevessa, Bear Tracks and NRS, which often serves as Hurwitz's home base and was therefore used for most overdubs.
Hurwitz, a 30-year veteran who has worked on projects with The Band since 1986, says that Helm's studio "is an amazing place - perfect for the way these guys like to work. It's a new barn designed in a very old way. Part of the room has a ceiling that's maybe eight or ten feet, but then it opens up into this giant room that's probably three stories high. It's all wood surrounded by these blue stone walls; it's a pretty live room. Then, above that, he has a separate control room (equipped with a TAC Scorpion console, a Stephens 821B recorder and Yamaha NS-10 monitors, supplied by Nevessa Studios), but instead of having glass separating it, it's open, so the communication is really good. That's important with a group like The Band."
"You really have to be on your toes and cut as much as you can live," he continues. "When they're ready to go, they just start. It's not like 'Here's take one'. They sit down and play, and it just happens; it's amazing. And I always have Garth on a separate send going live to DAT the second he sits down at the keyboard, because he does these improves and you never know where they're going to lead, or whether a piece of it will be usable for something later."
The most live session on the album was 'Blind Willie McTell', which we cut at Bearsville (on their SSL6000 and Studer A800)," Hurwitz adds. "On that one, everything was live: Levon and Randy playing drums; Levon's vocals while he was playing; Rick in an isolation booth singing and playing bass; the two keyboardists, and Jim Weider singing and playing acoustic guitar in an iso booth. Actually, a lot of vocals on the CD are live, because that's the way Levon , especially, and also Rick, to a degree, like to work."
Later, some other parts were overdubbed onto "Blind Willie McTell" including piano fills and a solo by the late, great bluesman Champion Jack Dupree. Wait, how could they overdub a late man's part later? "By the time we got to recording 'Blind Willie McTell, Champion Jack had passed away," Hurwityz recalls. "But several years ago, when he was up in this area, he came in and cut eight or nine tunes with The Band. And at that time, Garth had an idea of having Champion Jack do some overdubs on a version of 'Blind Willie McTell' they'd done earlier - just put it on a slave reel; he didn't know what might come out of it. Then, when we went to cut the song for this record - and it was one of the last two we cut - we took that old version, got the tempo map and put it on as the count up front and played it in the same key. Then I was able to take some of Champion Jack's parts, especially the solo, put them into Pro Tools and edit them into the new arrangement, which was quite a bit different. We brought it back up to 24-track and flew him back in. We even flew some of Garth's tracks from the old take in, too." Another bit of recording legerdemain used to spice up the track involved turning the tape of one of Garth's parts upside down and playing it backward. "It's almost inaudible," Hurwitz says, "but it's a great effect."
"Country Boy", the tune sung by Manuel, presents another set of challenges: "That was done back in 1985 at an 8-track studio (Sound Workshop 1280 console/Tascam 808 recorder) with Andy Robertson engineering," Hurwitz says. "At one point a couple of years ago, they took it over to Bearsville and bounced it over to 24-track and started working on it. Then, when we decided we were going to use it on the CD this time around, we redid the overdubs and brought it up to date with the new members. Over the last few years, Garth and I have been working on a lot of Richard's tracks, so it's almost like he's around us all the time."
Hurwitz marvels at the spirit of cooperation within the group, noting that the players easily put their egos aside in order to make the best record they could. "They don't get in each others way, and they truly act as a group," Hurwitz says. "It's not something you see that often, but they've been together so long it seems to be inherent in their personalities to work that way."
"A typical day would be John (Simon) would show up at Levon's around nine or ten in the morning, get things set up with the other engineers, Chris Anderson, and then they'd wait for everyone to show up," Hurwitz chuckles. "Be there, be ready and wait. Of course, Richard Bell and Randy and Jim Wieder would be there pretty much on-time. Then the other guys would wander in around two or three and start cutting. I'd come in around then, too, and as Chris would finish his shift, I'd take over. John would usually cut out around nine or ten, and then we'd keep going until three or four in the morning, sometimes working on one song, sometimes trying to get something on a couple of songs. Levon and Garth are definitely night people."
When I ask Hurwitz if he and The Band felt any special pressure making a record that they knew would be seriously scrutinized and compared to the group's past work, Hurwitz says, "I felt as though I had to be on my toes all the time, especially when I was mixing, because I knew we had good stuff to work with, and if it had come out badly, or it wasn't well-received, it would have been awful, considering they have such a great reputation and it had been so many years since they'd made a record." In terms of the group's attitude, Hurwitz says, "We had an endless discussion about how we could give it that Band sound that everyone loves but at the same time make it fresh and not sound like something that might have been outtakes."
When it came time to mix the record, Hurwitz flew down to Pyramid Records' studio in Lookout Mountain, Tenn., working for stretches of two and three weeks at the time on mixes that he then took back to New York for comments and suggestions from the players. "I used all the technology available to me to make it sound as good as it could," Hurwitz comments. "For instance, I used some of Bob Clearmountain's sampled (drum) sounds that he has on CD, triggered through the TC Electronic 2290. And I also used the Alesis D4, which is a great unit. But I never actually replaced any sounds; I'd just put a little behind Levon's and Randy's drums here and there. It makes it a little more modern maybe, and they were fine about it."
Pyramid Studios is equipped with a Sony MPX-3000 console, Otari recorders and Yamaha monitors. Hurwitz opted to use mainly stereo compressors - the Summit DCL 200 and Drawmer 1960 (both tubes),and the Neve 33609 and Massenburg 8900. Equalizers included the API 550A, Focusrite ISA, Neve 1081 and Pultec EQP-4A. "The best combination for Rick's and Levon's voices ended up being the API Lunchbox with the Summit compressors," Hurwitz says. "I was able to brighten it up and make it clear without making it too sharp."
Not surprisingly, Hudson was the bandmember most involved with making suggestions about the mix. "Garth is a master of overdubs and orchestrations," Hurwitz says. "He can really make something come together better than anyone I've ever worked with. His concern was that you can clearly hear every musical line, so we went back and took out a few things here and there. Even though they'd be lines I liked, taking them out did improve the tracks; he was right about that. Like on 'Too Soon Gone', we made the arrangement a little sparser to bring the lyric out more. The other thing Garth wanted was not too many effects. He really know about all that and has a good sense of when there's too much of something on a track."
Jericho has been selling briskly since it's release, and it appears to be picking up momentum as the word gets around that this really is a Band album worthy of the name. Nest on tap is a three-CD box set of the history of the Band coming from Capitol that Hurwitz promises "won't be just a greatest hits, because they've done that already." Instead, it will feature rare live tracks, ranging from gritty R&B from the Hawks days to Garth Hudson's famous organ improve at the mammoth Watkins Glen music festival in 1973, as well as a wealth of previously unreleased studio material from different areas. Meanwhile, The Band is on the road, playing venues big and small, doing it like they've always done it - no fancy suits or sets, just great playing and singing. It worked way back then. It works now.