by The Band (River North, 1998)
Review by Peter VineyCopyright © 1998 Peter Viney
Comments and Quotes(I would hope to add to this section once the reviews are in from the major mags. I havent quoted David Powells wonderful piece, because Id have to quote it in full. This, and all three sources presently quoted are also on the website.)
Id agree that this, taken as a whole, is the best "post-Robbie Band album". This is high praise, but conversely there is also no single track as good as Atlantic City or Blind Willie McTell. Theyve found some wonderful songs with great melodies, but though some of the lyrics are affecting, there are no lyricists here approaching the quality of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or maybe the third one doesnt need stating.
The album has a unified feel, like The Band or Storyville which makes it fine listening. Its one where you listen through without selecting (or rather de-selecting) tracks because the mood continues. On both Jericho and High on The Hog, the decision to include two Richard Manuel performances unfortunately broke the mood of the whole. Every fan was desperate to hear Richards voice when the albums were released, the Band were presumably keen to continue royalties to his family, and both songs are touching performances. But these two easy-listening tunes just dont fit stylistically with the rest of the material. It would have been much better to put out a Richard Manuel (or Richard Manuel with the Band) album utilising some solo show tapes. The good news from the recnt Rick Danko radio interview with Paul James is that this might be in the pipeline. I know this is heresey, and in these days of CD players it shouldnt really matter, but the albums lacked that essential cohesion.
Jubilation has been called Dankos album more than once (as Moondog Matinee was called Richards album and Northern Lights, Southern Cross was called Garths album). True enough. The outstanding songs are his, he co-wrote two of them, and his bass sound is the hallmark of the album. After a few years of seemingly less than whole-hearted commitment (with his solo shows and Danko, Fjeld, Anderson sharing his creativity) Rick repays it in full.
The decision to use acoustic stand-up bass has paid off. Rick Danko introduced fretless bass guitar into the sound of the original line up which edges the role of the bass towards that of stand-up bass. When I first heard the album was going to have stand-up bass I had my doubts. When Van Morrison introduced stand-up bass on the 90s jazz tours I think the sound lost a great deal of precision and rhythmic force. Bass guitar is more flexible, and more precise, which means you can play more complex riffs. Stand-up bass tends to a more plodding sound by its nature. On the other hand, Alex Dankworths string bass in the studio on The Healing Game lifted the album even further.
Here The Band have worked the bass line in with the way-up-front slapping drums to give a mid-fifties bottom to the whole sound. The power of Ricks bass is a welcome return. When you go back to the Basement Tapes you realise that this guy was always a loud and proud bass player. There was seepage onto the vocal mics because of the recording conditions in those days, but that wasnt the only reason for the volume of the bass. Listen to 1966 live cuts. Like Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, Danko was always a way up-front and highly melodic bass player. On High On The Hog he only played bass on five tracks, and those were the ones he sang lead on. So the lack of bass playing on the others looked more like lack of interest. When I first heard this album I thought Danko had played bass right through, but not so. He hands over electric bass to Mike Dunn on a couple of numbers, and the marvellous string bass on White Cadillac is Dunn also.
Levons voice is clearly in bad shape, but he comes through in indomnitable fashion with a performance that retains all the passion in spite of the lack of raw power. The great lack - and for The Band this is a major lack indeed- is the absence of that trademark voice swapping between Levon and Rick (which boosted both Atlantic City and Blind Willie McTell). There is supporting vocal of course, but you can always say This is a Levon track or This is a Rick track.
There are twelve guest musicians on the album. Not a lot you think when you hear the horn laden tracks towards the end. Then you realise that Tom Malone and Garth Hudson did the entire horn sections on their own. They have said its only "The Band" (rather than say Danko & Helm as in the 80s tours) when Garth Hudson is on board.This seems to be their rule. Look at these facts (excluding Garths solo French Girls):
I would say, that played on my best sound-system theres sometimes just a little too much going on in there, busy-ness confusing those essential Band-style empty spaces in the music. It sounds more pleasing on my "second-best system" or in the car. It also sounds better at moderate listening levels than it does with the speakers pumping. But who makes music for hi-fi testing? This is not Windham Hill.
Levon first showed his belief in crediting everyone creatively involved in composition on the Staying Together soundtrack, where every player gets a writing credit. This is a moot point, and not one Id agree with on anything other than a jam session, but its an honest belief, contrasting with normal industry practices, that they are clearly sincere about. And the credits here seem to reflect it.
The CoverJericho had the pink spine and pink house - this has the brown spine. The reference is obvious. The naïve George Colin painting on the front shows two women and a man holding a whale. The back photo on the insert shows just the three "senior members" of The Band, though all six are listed on the first page. This picture holds one key to the album. Rick, Garth and Levon are standing there proud of where they are and who they are - and young they certainly arent. Id put my copy down on the cover of the latest Goldmine. Robbie Robertson on the cover. Right up-to-the-minute, exploring new music and new avenues. Looking good. There they were in contrast, affirming proudly a different image, a different sound. Sure, as my daughter pointed out, The Band look ten years older than me (and one of them is), while Robbie might pass as several years younger. (Im five years younger than Robbie.) But somehow The Band appear to have reached a space where they dont have to sell records or please the crowd. They dont have to look good in a traditional sense (I hope this doesnt offend- its not meant to). "This is us". They make the music because they want to.
The SongsBook Faded Brown
In the Bands best tradition, this is an unexpected starter, with a subdued drum roll bringing in the accordion. It conjures up the America of A Wonderful Life or earlier, the family gathered round singing from a songbook or hymnbook thats passed down through the generations. It reminds me of a TV clip of Garth talking about his Anglican hymnals, or anecdotes about the Dankos singing and playing as a family. It sounds purpose made as a thematic opener - many of the songs here, as on The Band (aka the brown album), sound as if theyve come from that book thats faded brown. On initial listenings it is also the most appealing track on the album (well, actually Garths French Girls was my absolute favourite first time through). It sets the mood - acoustic stand-up bass high in the mix, wonderful accordion from Garth Hudson and Rick Danko right at the top of his form (again at last). The song was written by Paul Jost, and recorded by Carl Perkins in 1991 (though Ive been unable to trace this version). Jost has written at least one other song for Perkins.
Have you ever wondered why
Yes. Maybe the words dont bear close analysis, Paul Jost is not a major lyricist like Randy Newman or Dylan or more obviously but the song is achingly pretty, and the sentimentality is more folk than country. You find yourself singing it after a couple of listenings, and for me it would be the first single.
And the theme of the songbook is taken straight up again in the second song:
Well, I was searching by myself
Considering theyre by two different writers (and singers), they fit perfectly together. It shows that attention is paid to lyrics even this far post-Robertson. This song is sung by Levon, his voice frailer, strained but full of meaning, with Danko dueting on the chorus. The characteristic drum sound of the album, slapping, hollow, holding just a touch behind, is right at the front. Underneath it Garth Hudsons pianos subtle accents help every word. Like the best Robertson and Manuel lyrics, I find snatches sticking in my head, and bits I only half grasp the words to:
I took the low way, along the sea
He said Ive known high times more than once
And like the best classic Band songs, I enjoy the snatches without trying to interpret them as a whole. The line in that dry bone hazy late November time is one Id never have got without reading the booklet. I thought it was something about Rock of Ages and November time. Theres the voice in the best tradition of the frontiersman, declaiming his exploits to all, and its dripping with experience. Theres a strong Irish element in the tone of the ballad. Dancing with angels and drinking your fill is pure W.B. Yeats. This is a complete and mature extension of their classic work of 1969. Its not a song a man in his mid-twenties is likely to have sung though. Its full of those hints of mortality that come in mid-life, (or much earlier if youre soaked in Irish traditional music). The older man reminds me of Daniel & The Sacred Harp. Its interesting that he smiled and let me go, and in that space lie all the things Ill never know, but once the older man has released him the singer walks off - with a heavy heart I walked into the night. The older man, as in an Irish ballad has to have some metaphysical importance, and the encounter leaves the singer relieved yet reluctant to be released. Its an Irish version of that bluesmans meeting at the crossroads.
Of course its the voice of Levon carrying it, and living it. Look at the resonances - known high times more than once, but now sticking strictly to the honky tonks. Theyre not playing the Hollywood Bowl anymore either. Knowing danger and defeat. Having danced with angels and drank his fill, seeing whole generations fall to sleep and the matching of words to vocalist is doubly aposite.
After many listenings, this is taking over the position as my favourite track. Kevin Doherty strolls away with by far the best lyric on the album, and Im well acquainted with his other work. Kevin Doherty is a member of Irish band, Four Men and A Dog who have close Band connections. Rick Danko opened for them in 1995 in England. They opened for The Band in England and Ireland in 1996, joining them for the encores. Their albums, Dr As Secret Remedies and Long Roads were both produced by Aaron Hurwitz, and recorded at Levon Helm Studios. Doherty joins in on background vocals - but on High Cotton, not on his own song.
New Orleans singer/composer of See You later Alligator, Bobby Charles appeared on The Last Waltz performing Down South in New Orleans. The Band helped out on his classic 1972 album, Bobby Charles (aka Small Town Talk). He helped Rick Danko out on his 1977 solo album , and their composition Small Town Talk also featured as a memorable Paul Butterfields Better Days song.
This song takes the same title as Peter Guralnick's definitive biography of early Elvis, who also features in the lyrics. The Band have recorded two different songs with the title Back to Memphis. This has a nod towards them, but even more it is an extension of Mystery Train. Eric Clapton's name is prominent, but he didn't stop by for the session:
Rick Danko (interviewed by Paul James / CBS Radio)
If Mystery Train was a homage to 50s R&B, then Last Train To Memphis recreates 50s R&B, back in the days when acoustic bass players still pondered about the wisdom of buying Leo Fenders new Precision Bass, and drummers used arm-power rather than close mics. Its Levons song to the point where he has six different roles in the recording. Its one of the few with twin drummers (just as on Mystery Train). Levon narrated the Elvis 56 programme, and repeats his affection here:
The King is gone but he still lives on
and you have to take the train:
If you wanna see where the King come from
Levons at home musically (and geographically) - Cross the Arkansas border by midnight, Next stop Gracelands door. There are so many classic train songs that a song has to be good to join the elite. This makes it with ease.
Tom Pachecho recorded Woodstock Winter with a line-up featuring most of The Band in 1997. It was hailed as a very Band-like album. His writing credit breaks alphabetical order, implying a greater share.This has all the swampy humidity of the very best of J.J. Cale but a more memorable melody than most. Rick Danko takes the lead on an insiduous number. Its one that makes you press repeat on the CD player (shame if youve got the vinyl). But its also the fourth component in their best run of four succesive songs since Stage Fright. The words hang on in snatches here too. I keep hearing them.
Theres a hundred lucky ladybugs landin everywhere I see
The summer wind is heaven and the honeysuckles in the air
Im drinking Coca-Cola in a bottle thats frosty green
Its a good lyric, one bearing some comparison with their earlier songs with Southern atmosphere, showing that they have the same nostalgia as their erst-while Band mate for the South. Theres a resolution, a coming to terms with their present - Midnight cotton - Id forgotten that I had the blues. You have to live with it, however deep those blues are.
Garth purrs in with a languid sax solo halfway through. Who was it who described his sax sound as like liquid tobacco? Levons harmonica runs throughout.
The song is light, laid-back as the Band can get. The Band were never as languid as J.J. Cale, there was always a tension between the instruments. Maybe its what Robert Christgau was getting at when he described their music as having a sprung quality. Its one youd love to hear at an outdoor concert on a summers day I think this also has possibilities as a single (if anyone still thinks that way with artists their age.)
This truck-driving song is my least favourite on the album. Melodically it sounds like a Cahoots out-take. A bland tune relying on hugely competent, fiery backing to support the lyrics. I can imagine it would be magnificent on stage, the horns standing proud and strong. I actively disliked it until I found myself humming it, but I was even known to hum Cahoots tracks. I was fascinated to see a website posting comparing it to Smoke Signal - great minds think alike. Lyrically, its like putting Look Out Cleveland in the melting pot with Up on Cripple Creek. This has the trucker and the storm. Do truckers listen to The Band? Will it get played on country stations? Perhaps I took against it because it breaks that mood that was rolling so smoothly through the first four. The horns are punching in, dominating the song (as they will twice more on the album), the bass is electric, and not Danko.
Marty Grebb co-wrote Shine A Light, which had one of the better tunes on Jericho, and has also written for Maria Muldauer.
If "Crazy Mama" was plain old repetitive boogie, then this is at least "melodic repetitive boogie." This is sung as a duet between Rick Danko, and the songs composer John Hiatt, which reminds me how little vocal-swapping theres been so far. And the theme is still there:
bound by an ancient song
John Hiatt is a prolific songwriter with a cult following, an album a year man, who first came to notice with Ry Cooders early eighties line-up. He worked with Cooder again as Little Village in 1989. From what Danko says this was among a bunch of songs he sent in. I would have thought (almost any) new Hiatt song was a definite sales plus (so do they judging by the Featuring John Hiatt line on the sleeve). As this was made several months ago, I dont imagine that bound by the love that kneels is a reference to the problems experienced by the worlds second most important man from Arkansas (Levon being the first of course). Seriously, its an honest-to-goodness family love song, to a wife.
This was suggested as a potential first single, but personally I would not choose this. Its pleasures are immediate and infectious, but theyre not as long-lasting as Kevin Dohertys song, or either of the Pachecho / Danko collaborations.
Randy Ciarlante sings lead and also co-wrote this story of The Hawks white Cadillac, as detailed in the biographies or Robert Palmers "A Portrait of The Artists as Young Hawks. On their live on the net interview, it was pointed out reasonably that the Band naturally had senior members and junior members. One translation is that the junior members (Bell, Ciarlante, Weider) soundcheck, and the senior ones dont! As the junior members are well-integrated into this album (though Richard Bell isnt heard enough), its good to see Randy get to take lead, too.
One magic moment is when Randy describes the big dog-house thumping and Mike Dunn (Id thought it was Rick, but its not) does a sudden urgent flurry on the string bass - you can see it would have been spun round at the same time. I dont ever recall pictures of Hawkins with a stand-up bass, though they were without a bass player very early on, except in the studio. Even then, Ronnie Hawkins had the bass removed from early songs. An early picture shows Jimmy Evans with a Fender bass. By the time Danko joined it was definitely electric bass guitar. But there are references to competition with The King and the early Elvis tours featured Bill Black on stand-up bass, and thats the picture hes drawing. So, its good to imagine the big bass thumping! I love:
Camel walk, back flip, mohair - what a touch
When he sings,
Headin up north, were leavinstills behind
I assume the kids are The Hawks.
A key song. David Powell mentioned this on the website as a "gunfighter ballad" sung by Rick Danko. Big Iron and Dont Take Your Guns To Town were pure gunfighter ballads. Id agree with David that its intended to be a "gunfighter ballad", but lets be more precise - this is a "Cowboys and Indians" ballad. The music leads us in, western movie cowboy rather than c&w. The guys trapped up there (surrounded and alone and still pursued).
Im trapped on this mountain
He doesnt fear an attack until dawn, but hell face it with "both guns drawn." Both guns. Holsters. Six shooters.
I looked down the canyon
A canyon with fires, and an enemy who wont attack until dawn. The idea that Indians wouldnt attack at night is accepted in every good (and bad) Western movie. I dont know what evidence there is for this belief ("warriors spirit cant find Great Spirit in dark. Bad medicine" - any Hollywood B-movie screenwriter, 1930 - 1960), though I do know that there were a remarkably small number of skirmishes in reality compared to the continual battles of the movies. We also know that Native Americans were the slaughtered more often than the slaughterers. No one can make me believe that the enemy here are a posse? Texas Rangers? Bandits? The opposing Civil War army? The Hole-In-The-Wall gang? No, for sure, theyre "Red Indians". This is a term I avoid, but I cant see that this song is about Native Americans.
The guys up there, and doesnt prevail, and if he should fail and you should get this mail the mail is a letter to the loved one pictured with a red rose, so personal. Nonetheless, the first few times through I pictured him as a Pony Express Rider. No evidence on close examination, but a strong first impression out there on the fearful trail. This is the sort of ballad that Rick Danko did with a degree of irony when he sang The Long Black Veil. This hasnt got the irony. Its sung sweeter and straighter. I have to say, that given Robbie Robertsons high profile association with Native Americans, and his ethnicity, this lyric is either (a) insensitive or (b) provocative. You choose.
On one level, probably sub-conscious, this shows The Band under seige, pursued by the ghost of the past. Surrounded by the Red Indian(s) if you like. Or for them, is it betrayed by the one who quit? Theyre standing up to give it their best against the world. This sub-conscious level may well have a streak of bitterness running through it. Robbies saving the Native Americans, but who is saving The Band (and what they stand for). OK, at a conscious level this was probably just a fun Roy Rogers / Hopalong Cassidy view of the Wild West, but as Robbies videos are filled with Western images, this goes straight for the heart of the cliché that Native Americans are trying to reveal in different (and I think truer) light.
Its a superb vocal performance by Danko, with sensitive backing. Nice mouth harp from Levon at the end. The lyrics also take on a personal dimension (If I should fail, on this fearful trail ), given the last couple of years and the Japan bust, health fears and the rest.
The credits are shared between Tom Pachecho and Rick Danko (not in alphabetical order once more), but the tune sounds pure Danko to me (Im often wrong) - listen to his solo album or the two Danko, Fjeld, Anderson albums.
The title Jubilation is a quote from the lyrics, and Spirit of The Dance was initially the title of the album. Jubilation is more descriptive.When I saw the title I wondered for an insane moment whether Robbie had contributed! But its by four of The Band. Theres a storm of percussion effects pushing through it. Its sung by Danko supported by a great horn section consisting of Tom Malone multiplying himself by four. The problem is that Rick sounds somewhat jaded as hes evoking the spirit of the dance. This gives a rather interesting edge to the vocal, and the lyrics with mentions of trance and we have the power to make the fire glow make me think of Robbie rather than disco or drums and bass:
The tillerman tells a story
Theres more - processions through the valleys and mountains, Heres where it begins If youd shown me the lyric and asked who it was associated with, I would have been totally wrong.
This is a number right after Levons heart, the kind of warm lived-in R&B song that he revels in. It was written by Allen Toussaint, the New Orleans producer and songwriter who did the horn charts for Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz. Levons taste for this kind of song earned him a memorable two-word review from Robert Christgau for his second solo album, more boogie. But boogie is as boogie does, and this shows impeccable taste - at the very top end of boogie. The original version (I assume it was the first, I may be wrong) was by saxophonist-turned-singer Robert Parker in 1969, produced in Muscle Shoals by Bob Robins. I have to confess that the original version comes from one of my all-time favourite albums, Barefootin by Robert Parker (Charley Soul 1993). This collection of Robert Parkers hits includes several songs which remind me of The Band. Clive Andersons sleeve notes even have this to say:
Better Luck in the Summertime, with bass a mile deep and lazily slewing horns taken with Parkers own composition Skinny Dippin sounds very much like the template for the kind of Americana which made Robbie Robertsons reputation with The Band.
Id always thought that both Give Me The Country Side of Life and You See Me were even more Band-like (not to mention the legendary Sneakin Sally through The Alley which is also on this album). Materials that sound nothing like The Band, Barefootin and Lets Go Baby (Where The Action Is) are also on this essential compilation.
The Band do soul covers well - Holy Cow, Lovin You Is Sweeter Than Ever, Baby Dont Do It. Id have to say that much as I thoroughly enjoy The Bands takes on all these songs, if I had to choose I prefer the originals of all of them. The Robert Parker version of You See Me has the horns but suppresses them way down in the mix, with guitar, bass and drums more prominent - very much in the style of Lee Dorsey. Listeners have already observed that Levon is at less than full-strength throughout, but its Levons voice that lifts this cover right up to the level of the original. Levon is under strain, but it doesnt stop him for a second. He gives it his all (as ever), and taking the top edge of power away gives the song an (even more) laid-back feel. He also drums, and the harmonica part is magnificent too. Its Mike Dunn on electric bass, and Rick Danko does not participate, nor does Richard Bell, and Randy Ciarlante only does backing vocals (making it his smallest contribution on the album). This is basically Helm, Hudson & Weider helped out by Mike Dunn, Tom Malone and Aaron Hurwitz.
It starts off with a reference back:
I heard a train whistle blowing
which links us to Last Train to Memphis, thus maintaining the integrated feel of the whole album.
A masterpiece. And far too short.
Id go a long long way to find an album full of material this powerful. How much of this sort of thing has Garth got hidden away? Im tending to put this on repeat for up to an hour, which is a bad habit. While Garth is producing melodies this entrancing, and while Randy, Jim and Rick are coming up with decent lyrics, why is there no combination? We have to go back to Bacon Fat to find Garth collaborating on a song (and that was just a 12-bar). Both Rick and Levon have stated (regarding solo shows) that its only called The Band when Garths along. Why are they not tapping this mans genius even more? What a year, first Garths Largo and now this.
OverallI had this on tape (thank you to those who offered) off one of the promos, which meant I listened without re-selecting tracks. I had agreed not to mention I had it, not being on the promo list, until my copy arrived. That means I gave it two weeks to sink in before starting to comment. I also felt that everyone in Europe should have access to it first. But the mail order places are doing a good job at a fair price. I think it has a great feel, and until Kentucky Downpour I thought it was a masterpiece. Some albums grow on you. I think Jubilation has palled just a little - Im not so totally off-the-wall enthusiastic as I was the first ten times or so that I heard it. Sometimes it sounds wonderfully relaxed and laid back, other times it creeps over the edge into tired. Or maybe its how I feel at the time. The first four tracks form a magnificent run, as good as they get. Theres good rocking stuff from Levon as well as the Danko songs. Its a mature, eyes wide-open album, and relaxed / tired / inspired compete for place each time you listen.
I think they should have gone with the instinct and kept to the acoustic instrumentation throughout (though Id hate to have lost You See Me as a result). They were consciously trying to recreate the Americana feel of the brown album, and often get there. If I was doing the Rolling Stone / Q thing Id give it four stars, rather than five (all the original Bands first three would get five). I wouldnt even consider comparing Jubilation directly with Robbie Robertsons latest (also four star), theyre coming from such different places. Im delighted to have both in one year. But the best Band-like album of 1998 is Largo, a straight five-star album.