The Band: A Musical History
by Justin Cober-LakeFrom Stylus Magazine, November 2005.
All photos copyright © Elliott Landy/landyvision.com.
The Band only put out a handful of albums, and an even smaller number of great ones. Still, they managed to put together somewhere between 20 and 25 compilations (depending on how you want to count imports and variations), including one box set. It would only be fair to wonder if the group really needs further repackaging. It might not be needed, but if it's done as well as it is on The Band: A Musical History, it's worth it.
Over five CDs and a DVD, this box set collects nearly all of the band's material released until 1977 (through the album Islands -- the group would release music into the late '90s, but without Robertson, who, not coincidentally, largely curated this set). Over 1/3 of the set, however, contains previously unreleased material, and more rare tracks. The set suits the die-hard fan by supplying fascinating demos, outtakes, and more, and it satisfies the regular fan by containing all she needs.
For the rock historian, it also offers an easy chance to re-examine this band. Robbie Robertson (guitar), Rick Danko (bass), Levon Helm (drums), Richard Manuel (piano), and Garth Hudson (organ and too much to name) came from Canadian rockabilly and blues to create one of the most distinct sounds in popular music. In doing so, they managed to blend nearly every form of music birthed in the US.
Much has been made of this synthesis, but this box gives us the chance to parse the completed as well as the unfinished tracks to separate each root. That process also allows us to see how The Band set precedence for numerous elements of performance and song. My argument isn't that The Band is a direct ancestor to each of these later artists and sounds, primarily because tracing a precise chronology with this idea in mind would be reductive. Instead, I merely offer that The Band can function as a cortex, a belly-button moment leaving a lens through which surprisingly large amounts of American popular music can be understood.
The opening selection makes my argument about the early formation of the group better than I ever could: The Hawks are a blues bar band. This version of "Who Do You Love" smashes any that you've heard, and if you've only known the song through the George Thorogood, then you'll know why this one's such a burner. Oddly, Rick Danko's off bass and on guitar for this track. The Band never swapped instruments to make a spectacle, but they would do so on occasion when the song required it. This change looks like a freak occurrence, as Danko would solely handle bass duties for the group afterwards. At this recording session, in 1963, the group hadn't locked into that firm rhythm section that would later be so noteworthy.
That they weren't locked in doesn't mean they weren't tight. With some shifting and switching of personnel, The Hawks had been recording with Ronnie Hawkins for a few years at that point. The group was performing songs like "Further on up the Road" (which would later become an Eric Clapton number) and "You Know I Love You" by Jimmy Reed (a bluesman maybe best known for "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby"). Hawkins and his band were drawing directly from the American blues tradition, specifically the urban Chicago sound, which might seem surprising given The Band's later bumpkin iconography. This fact distinguishes these musicians from many later blues-rock acts, who would actually learn the blues primarily from white British artists, like Clapton, the Yardbirds, John Mayall, and even rock acts like the Rolling Stones and the Animals.
The group would rely on the blues shuffle to guide its sound for the next few years. The Band would start veering toward its honky-tonk influences, but generally only as diversions, such as on the aptly-titled "Honky Tonk," or for individual elements of recordings, as with "Bacon Fat," which offers some noteworthy blues guitar from Robertson. Folk influences also began to creep in, but "Go Go Liza Jane" shows how The Band primarily used them as building blocks. That track comes from an old folk tune, but the revved-up studio version here sounds more like a club stomp than a troubadour sing-a-long.
The folk background would have more of an effect on Robertson's songwriting than on The Band's performances: the song sketches of "(I Want to Be) The Rainmaker" and "The Stones I Throw" show Robertson searching for a personal voice, but hesitatingly. The first track is a throwaway piece of hallucinogenic blather, but the second one could have been involved in a Woody Guthrie trade. When it comes to its full band realization for the 1965 single, it takes on a gospel feel, aided primarily by Hudson's organ style, but the blues roots are never far behind. They'd never leave completely, but the shift toward a more original sound was beginning.
It didn't hurt that they recorded their first sessions with Bob Dylan around this point. It's easy to imagine Dylan leaving a wake of influence everywhere he went, and while that might be an exaggeration, it's also likely that Dylan had an impact on Robertson (and his bandmates) while making tapes in the basement at Woodstock. After this period, The Band would release their debut album, Music from Big Pink, which would not just mark a new and distinct sound for them, but it would make the music world take notice.
This period of The Band's history wouldn't have the greatest impact on popular music. Since the blues would so fully integrate with rock 'n' roll, it would be senseless to try to draw a line of influence. What we can see, however, is that The Band's early strategy -- blues music plus a continuing accretion of styles plus a slight look inward -- shows up again and again in a variety of unlikely places.
Johnny Lang, for example, began as a straight blues protege, but quickly expanded his sound. By the time he released his third album, Wander This World, he was pulling in more soul and funk than at any point. That he would often cover Stevie Wonder live fit perfectly with his developing sound, but his use of Wonder as an influence allowed him to make a stronger personal statement. While his colleague Kenny Wayne Shepherd bogged down in his Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute, Lang used the blues to stretch ever outward. Similarly, The Band moved past peers such as Canned Heat.
The Band's -- or at least The Hawks' -- sound might match up more directly with The Black Keys' aesthetic, the earlier group actually has more in common with the indie kids who moved away from their blues roots. The Deadly Snakes, for example, were probably raised on the kind of guitar-playing that blues fans brought into garages long ago, but they've managed to assemble parts of everything they could get their hands on. Their new album Porcella has little in common with The Band (aside from orchestration, including organ and saxophone), but their technique of exploding away from the blues bar band they could have been shares much in spirit with the guys that Ronnie Hawkins first assembled.
The Band's true break would be less of an explosion and more of their own sort of quiet revolution. Robertson.for the time being.gave up his guitar heroics for the good of the songs. Notes and interviews on the period point to Robertson's fascination with developing "a sound" for The Band, and the group would certainly accomplish that on their debut album Music From Big Pink, their strongest and most striking album.
The band returned to a folksier basis for their music, largely abandoning the blues that had so heavily informed the sound of The Hawks. Hudson's organ has much greater prominence than ever before, and its unusual tone adds to the lost feeling of the album. The opening to "Chest Fever" (later extended to "Genetic Method") sounds downright church-y, and brings a different type of energy to the record, which is nearly undercut by the funereal Dixieland moment that occurs partway through.
The album's lyricists -- including Manuel, Danko, Robertson, and, of course, Dylan -- continued the impressionistic folk explorations. While the cover of "Long Black Veil" could have come from an old-time number (it didn't), the original tracks make a marked departure from the folk tradition from which they grew. "Chest Fever," for example, contains nothing but nonsense lyrics, a far cry from either the political rhymes of Dylan's past and the straightforward (or explicitly suggestive) blues of Robertson's.
The not-quite-real feeling of the lyrics was enhanced by the odd vocals the group put together. First, the vocalists weren't aligned in timing. The Band's aborted attempt at "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" could position them alongside the Carter Family, but they continually resist that background by overlapping their vocal lines with just a bit of premeditated imprecision. The singers' actual tones and timbres add to the strangeness emanating from Big Pink. Danko and Manuel have two of the most haunting voices in pop history, and "Tears of Rage" capture that perfectly (and, later, "Stage Fright" will take it to an entirely different place).
With the release of this album, The Band marked out a territory that was distinctly theirs. They sounded ancient, yet worked to distance themselves from tradition. They drew on folk music, but had alienated themselves from the purists. Not hippies, not psychedelic, and not rocking hard, The Band had fully realized their vision.
This type of area might appear to preface the current scene of freak-folkers, and it does on one level. But these artists.whether you mean the Banhart contingent, the Animal Collective types, anti-folkers like Dufus, or whoever -- often seek weirdness as its own end. The Band were weird because they were different, but they were invested in connection and disconnect in a way that formulated itself in the alienation of narrators in songs like "The Weight" and "In a Station."
Although The Band had suitable commercial success, its inheritors in terms of place tend to be figures in the margins, both in the music world and in culture. Jim White, for one, writes from a feeling of displacement in the South (a feeling perhaps related, but not identical, to the way members of The Band felt in their mythologizing of this foreign land) and in the church. In carving out his musical territory, White draws heavily on folk and Americana traditions, but he continually refines his music into a more personal vision.
A bigger name than White, Tom Waits could have been a character from The Band (had he been in "Long Black Veil," he'd be the best friend, albeit an all-knowing version). He seems as if he comes from a different world, or at least another era, and he populates his songs with a sort of post-folk anti-hero. While he's indebted to the singer-songwriter tradition, he's not of it, and it seems that his career has largely been a movement away from his music's past and into an original landscape.
In searching for their own original landscape, The Band moved further and further into the South and the rural countryside (figuratively if not always literally, especially considering Helm's status as a native Arkansan). The group's self-titled second album offered forays into the region nearly as strong (if not as memorable or visually effective) as its debut. At the time of the album's release in 1969, Susan Lydon, writing for the New York Times said, "The songs... remind me of the rural South, of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County." She's right, rarely has a collection of songs captured the feel of a geographical area.or at least a mythic one.so well.
In creating this work, The Band drew on regional influences not only for its music, but also for its iconography. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," with its Faulknerian grip on the Lost Cause and its hurt in exploration, epitomized this inspiration. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" gets deep into the South with a rice and corn farmer. But geography turned out to be only a tool for the songwriters. "Up on Cripple Creek," the album's most successful song relies on a connection between Cripple Creek in Colorado and Lake Charles in Louisiana. The narrator seems to be exiting the South, but he's not escaping it, and ultimately the specific location of the song becomes meaningless.
Not so for the music, however, which became more countrified even as it integrated a variety of styles like the related honky-tonk and ragtime (with a strong base in Helm's Arkansas, but more closely associated with St. Louis and Scott Joplin). Robertson and company dove as deep into the South as they dared, but they were only plunderers, not to the extent of a General Sherman, but they were never assimilators.
Stage Fright marked less a change in sound than in lyrical content. The Band became more confessional, and the album, despite several rollicking or humorous numbers, maintains a dark tone that's expressed in songs like "The Weight" or "Long Black Veil." "The Shape I'm In" is emblematic of the album. It resists urban life, yet it fears the current small-town situation. Ultimately it devolves into a state of paranoia ("You know they feel you trying to shuck us") than renders the earlier uses of irony less than amusing.
The album peaks with the title track, in which Danko delivers the finest vocal of his career, not because he's note perfect but because he trembles like the music, like the narrator, and like the listener. In his anxious delivery, he matches the state of his bandmates grappling with unexpected fame, but he also resonates with even the non-artists in his audience, providing a voice of fear that will serve to express the ineffable inside each of us. In avoiding the archetypical signs of this and the previous album, Danko (and composer Robertson) create the most memorable figure on either release.
The followers from this period of The Band's recording are obvious: alt-country can hardly be examined as a genre without an acknowledgement of The Band's brand of country-rock. Groups like Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks take much stylistically from the stage-fearing predecessors. However, the less-noticed but equally important paradigm here is one of the artist who explores a culture without exploiting or co-opting it. Unlike white and British blues musicians mentioned earlier, The Band offers their exploration of this culture as a depiction, as a historical model, rather than as something taken.
We can see a similar model in the work of Calexico. This Tucson-based band dives into the music of the Southwest, but never loses its footing in rock and indie culture. The arid borderlands of Calexico's music are honored in presentation, description, and sound. When Joey Burns sings, "Wash my face in the rivers of empire" in Feast of Wire's "Sunken Waltz," he explores more personally than politically the modern Southwest in a way reminiscent of Virgil Caine's trip through fallen Dixie.
Devotchka likewise uses the feel of the Southwest, also incorporating mariachi influences, but they balance their presentation out with Eastern European gypsy sounds. It's a tactic that pays tribute to two cultures while pursuing a singular culture. The guns of war sound explicitly in the music, with the loss both around us and yet to come. Where Calexico and The Band mourn for a lost region to express personal emotion, Devotchka describe that moment of the fall, and bring us with them.
In their exploration of the South, The Band were due to take a float trip to New Orleans at some point. As a group, they were drifting apart and Robertson was continuing to take on the bulk of the writing. He brought in Allen Toussaint to do the horn arrangements for "Life Is a Carnival," which would become the high point of the next album, Cahoots. Toussaint, a multi-talent artist brought a Dixieland feel to the arrangement, but crafted something especially original. While the rest of the album was uneven (see the arguably tasteless/arguably evocative Orientalism in "Shoot Out in Chinatown"), Toussaint's craft would make the song -- truly a collaborative effort between Robertson, Danko, and Helm -- one of The Band's finest moments.
The track deserves to be listened to in stereo. Horns pop up all over the place, and, while each hit is precise, it lends a feeling of chaos perfect for the song's message. Toussaint employed more syncopation than on any previous Band recording, and he kept the horn players moving in individual directions, allowing the whole of the song to come from a mixture rather than a compound of sounds. In the notes to the box, Robertson accurately notes that the technique was similar to what The Band had been doing all along: "It was very much like The Band in a way! It's kind of like a Dixieland approach."
That somewhat Dixieland style didn't stop with the opener to Cahoots, but it wouldn't fully show up again until Toussaint worked with the group again on horn arrangements for the live shows that would become the Rock of Ages double album. A comparison between the version of "Don't You Do It" (a Holland-Dozier-Holland song originally recorded by Marvin Gaye) recorded for the studio and used at the live shows reveals the transition. The unused Cahoots version is driven by Danko's funky bass line, and supported by Hudson's organ. Under Toussaint's guidance, the horns use short R&B hits, but, as with his arrangement for "Carnival," the players scatter across the song, adding bent notes and unlikely pitches. The Band, and their accomplices, turn Dixieland, funk, and R&B into something utterly their own.
The obvious touchstone for this sort of blending, Little Feat (see the aptly-titled Dixie Chicken) used horns to less intense but more danceable effect throughout their run. Like The Band, Little Feat also continued to rely on old-time rock 'n' roll on songs; while they were pulling out old styles for new tracks, The Band just slipped into covers such as "(I Don't Want to Hang Up My) Rock 'n' Roll Shoes." Their love of old rock 'n' roll made for charming live moments, but it would soon become a hindrance (and temporary salvation) for the group. Their uncreative, albeit well-performed, version of Ivy Hunter and Stevie Wonder's "Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever)" on Rock of Ages suggests the lack of energy that would infuse their next batch of covers.
An unlikely descendent from The Band's Dixieland/Southern R&B stylings, Elvis Costello would record Get Happy!! as a tribute to the soul and R&B of the South. Like The Band, Costello.s version came out of a more raucous tradition (in his case punk and New Wave). Costello was under the additional spotlight of having made racial insults at James Brown and Ray Charles, two American icons. While The Band had safely kept their inappropriate behavior directed at Chinese opium dens and musical intervals, they were able to more freely explore these Southern roots. While the British Costello could be read as making an honest homage, a genre exercise, the largely Canadian and entirely white Band simply deepened their guise of Southern authenticity (in which the use and meaning of both "guise" and "authenticity" can be called into question).
The Band's love of oldies would see them through a rough period. After Cahoots, the group moved farther apart, and recording new material became increasingly difficult. In 1973 they decided just to record a series of cover versions that became Moondog Matinee. The album wasn't completely a moment of stagnation.The Band reworked each song into their own sound (and Robertson even added a verse of new lyrics to the classic "Mystery Train"). While the album functions, it doesn't excite, and the group needed to do something new.
After this recording, they all moved to California, where they resumed their work with Bob Dylan, first on his studio album Planet Waves and then on a 1974 tour that would be captured on Before the Flood. Whether this new location and activity spurred the band or not, they returned with their first album of new material in four years, the often overlooked Northern Lights-Southern Cross. This album, in retrospect, sounds like a summation. It's almost a country album, heavily-influenced by folk, but the New Orleans horns return for "Ophelia," and the bluegrass opens up on "Acadian Driftwood," a rolling and affecting number. Just released on this box, the song sketch of "Twilight," performed by Robertson alone at the piano, captures all the emotion the band once put into their music, and reveals Robertson's continuing songwriting depth.
Unfortunately, it's also the end of the group's powerful material. After this album, they did a farewell concert 1976 called The Last Waltz, and captured on film by Martin Scorsese. The group plays relatively tightly (although Robertson is a bit overzealous at times), but it's clear they're only looking back at this point. The show has its moments -- most notably when Van Morrison joins them for "Tura Lura Lura" -- but it was just a good-bye, in which a variety of stars came out to pay tribute and in which The Band could exit with pride.
Or nearly exit, at any rate, given that they still had to do one more studio album. They pulled together a few songs they had been working on earlier and put out Islands. The music on this album isn't bad, but none of it is truly memorable in the way that so much of their early work was. With such strong talent creating it, Islands doesn't bomb, it just fades The Band away.
This era of The Band shows the two sides of using the past. Moondog Matinee and The Last Waltz is the sound of the group spinning its wheels. Northern Lights-Southern Cross, however, epitomizes the group's sense of history at its best, reeling in a variety of musical forerunners while crafting very contemporary songs. "Acadian Driftwood" explores the expulsion of Acadians from their Canadian homes (often to southern Louisiana). It's historically imprecise, but it still resonates, and enhances the songs that surround it on the album but fully realizing the increasing sense of displacement, especially in "Hobo Jungle" and "Forbidden Fruit," but relevant to "It Makes No Difference," as well. "Acadian Driftwood" allows a tale and sounds from the past to take on a contemporary and (even to those of us who aren't Canadian-born Dixieland fans) a personal importance.
This era reveals The Band to be winding down, but still able to ably grapple with their themes of loss, displacement, and history. These concerns come up throughout popular music, as artists struggle to find a home. The Band's work here, even if it's not their best album, reveals the failures of other artists to effectively use history. Southern rock, for example, has too often relied solely on superficial signs. Lynyrd Skynyrd's use of Confederate visual codes and miracle tones evokes not the true Southern past, but merely plays a self-referential game within the genre.
The true heirs to The Band and their sense of ties to both community and history might not sound like the group at all. Hick-hop might not ever have reached the status of even a true subculture, but the major player's ability to merge their backgrounds and personal expression follows a model similar to The Band's. Otis Taylor, working primarily in blues and folk, frequently takes stories out of history and turns them into personal meditations. His use of both African-American and Native American history relies on loss and displacement, and is strikingly original and effective. Abigail Washburn, she of the clawhammer banjo, uses her music to mediate a life trapped between two cultures, Appalachian folk culture and China. To do so she explores the myths and history she's learned in China and builds herself a place to live.
For The Band, exploration was largely about coming home, but to do that, they needed to define their place. Partly, they were Southern and country at heart, but they came from Canada, lived in New York, and moved to Malibu. Music became a means to negotiate their sense of dislocation, and their lyrics a way to turn physical wandering into emotional certainty. The past returns, and as The Band catch back up with us, they teach us how the provincial becomes encompassing, and they show how the varied becomes the precise, and they offer us the sound of home, fleeting as it may be.
For our own return, let's go back to our beginning, The Band: A Musical History, which provides one last disc, a DVD containing nine performances by The Band between 1970 and 1976. From home recording at Woodstock to the stage at Wembley Stadium, the group played for the full range of crowds, but the videos peak with a simple performance of "Stage Fright" on Saturday Night Live in 1976, just before the group would stop touring and part ways. Rick Danko delivers an especially moving vocal, his waver more than his lyrics honing in on what it means to be an artist: the fear, the expression of the personal, and, ultimately, the necessity of it all. Forget all the talk of genres, influence, and history, and you're still left with something that matters.