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Return to Big Pink 2011

by Peter Viney

From The Band guestbook, april 2011

On reading the new Band articles on this site, I had a few hours in the car on Friday and decided to go through Music From Big Pink very loud, and try to imagine doing it with fresh ears. I was trying to remember how it felt when I first heard it and there was little information about The Band. There is major interference from later knowledge, and that's inevitable.

First off, when I first heard it, I assumed Tears of Rage, To Kingdom Come, In A Station were all the same singer. I thought Robbie on the second was Richard. The first different lead was apparently Rick on Caledonia Mission. I've castigated myself for cloth ears since... but it was a reasonable conclusion. Then comes The Weight which was already very familiar when I first heard the album in a booth at W.H. Smith, and couldn't afford to buy it immediately. That was a different voice again, and a Southern accent. And it was the single. The run of Band charting singles then mainly featured Levon lead vocals.

On to Side Two, and Levon's oft-repeated statement that "Richard was our lead singer" is borne out, though Rick takes two leads and they all join in on We Can Talk. As Side Two kicks off, I remember that We Can Talk hit me as the obvious second single at the time. It never happened. They weren't good at choosing singles.

Back to Rick for Long Black Veil. Here later knowledge kicks in. We know Levon had just returned and that The Weight was the last song written. So he got the lead on three out of five verses. The other bit of later knowledge would lead to the assumption that they'd thought it through to a degree and assigned, or shared out, the lead vocals before Levon got back. That led me to think "casting director" a role Robbie claimed he was doing with vocals by the Brown album. So Long Black Veil. Levon had the most obvious "cowboy" voice. As a casting director, you'd have assigned it to him, I think. Except that one suspects Rick brought it to the table... remember he's reading "C&W Hits" on the cover of Moondog Matinee. Also, you know that Rick can carry off the seemingly sentimental with assurity evry time... as he was to do with It Makes No Difference. But Levon's voice gets blended in on verse two, which gives the required effect.

Chest Fever is great, very familiar etc.

Then you get that closing run of three. The one that some people have said they skip. Lonesome Suzie was a favourite of mine at the time and that affection lasted two or three years. I even liked the Blood, Sweat and Tears overblown version. Now I don't like it. It's too clearly sub-Eleanor Rigby, but not as good, lacking the full jump in instrumentation or the lyrical quality. I realized how often I've skipped it myself since about 1972.

This Wheel's On Fire? I keep saying the 90s Band were mad not to feature it. BUT, I prefer the Julie Driscoll version. I know, I know... it's just that her icy voice nailed the song and defined it for me. I do know when I first heard the album, I thought her version better. When I finished with MFBP, I had to pull off the road to find her version on my iPod. I still prefer Julie's chilling voice, taking the temperature down on a warm day. Also, I think the Byrds did it just as well, or even better than The Band. That's probably because McGuinn's nasal tone is also slightly spacey, reminding me of Julie Driscoll. But the Band should still have done it.

I Shall Be Released? It falls in a group with Tears of Rage / In A Station / Lonesome Suzie... 40% on Richard on slower gentle stuff. It got killed by all the events it was sung at. It was the B-side of The Weight, and for a year, I played both sides on the jukebox at university while I read the free morning papers and had a coffee, so incredibly familiar. Too familiar. I realized I often stop after This Wheel's On Fire.

The thing that stood out, as well as the best rhythm section I'd ever heard at that point, was how prominent piano is throughout the album, and how well it's played... not the fill in rhythm piano of later years. But Garth took the piano for The Weight. Is it harder? The tragedy of the lost talent of Richard Manuel screams out. He was Robbie's equal as a composer on that album, he was the most highly featured singer, and his instrumental work was great. Even by the Brown album, it was slipping past him so fast. And it wasn't just "Robbie taking over". It was also Levon getting more lead vocals - rightly, as it fitted the mood, he deserved it and it was equal share out time rather than coming late to the party. The Robbie-Levon duality, the two competing controlling forces that are the powerhouse in getting groups into prominence, was back in force.

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