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The History of The Band

[Prev: "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots"] [Next: 1975's Miracle and the Last Waltz] [History Index]

The "in between" Years

by Rob Bowman

From the article "Life Is A Carnival", Goldmine magazine, July 26, 1991, Vol.17, No.15, Issue 287.
© Rob Bowman and Goldmine magazine. Reprinted with permission.

The Band planned to close out the difficult year of 1971 in a very special way. Excited by their collaboration with Allen Toussaint on "Life Is A Carnival", they asked Toussaint to write arrangements for much of their repertoire, to be performed at three special concerts at the Academy of Music in New York, culminating New Year's eve 1971 with what was then an extremely rare appearance by Bob Dylan, at the stroke of 12. All three nights were recorded for what would become the live double LP Rock Of Ages.

Rick Danko, for one, couldn't believe the way Toussaint worked. "He came up to the mountains. We put him in one of our cabins. We asked him `What do you want - a piano?' He said, `No, just a tape recorder and some music sheets.' We gave him a tape recorder with earphones and he just wrote that off the top of his head. He's a genius."

Retitled "Don't Do It" on both Rock Of Ages and the subsequent 45 release (#34 in the fall of 1972), "Baby Don't You Do It" was originally a Motown classic written by songwriting aces Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland and recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1964. The Band had been performing it from their very first concerts as the Band in 1969. They would continue to do so until their farewell in 1976. They had attempted to record it in the studio at least once, but for one reason or another it was never quite good enough.

Driven by Toussaint's incendiary horns, the Rock of Ages version became definitive. Helm opened proceedings with a sharp crack on his snare and he sang with a desperate, near-the-edge quality while Danko came up with a bass line that actually outdid Motown's own James Jamerson. As with any great cover, the Band totally reshaped and redefined the song. They made it their own that night at the Academy of Music, for then and ever more.

Both Stage Fright and Cahoots received somewhat disappointing reviews and the Band seemed tired. New Years Day 1972 began what can be referred to as the "in between years". They would not play another gig until the Watkins Glen Festival a year and a half later, and they would not release a new album of original material for four full years. The interim was filled up by the aforementioned Rock of Ages set in the fall of 1972, an album of oldies, Moondog Matinee, recorded and released a year later, and the inspired and inspiring Bob Dylan/Band tour in January and Fenruary 1974. They also backed Dylan on his Planet Waves LP, released February 1974, and they can be heard on the live Dylan/Band tour '74 album Before The Flood, released in July 1974.

One new song, "Endless Highway", appeared on Before The Flood. It had earlier debuted at Watkins Glen. Watkins Glen was a very special festival that included only three groups, The Allman Brother, The Grateful Dead and The Band. Held July 28, 1973 at the Watkins Glen racetrack in upper New York State, each group was guaranteed to play at least three hours. As well, a jam featuring members of all three ensembles was to ensue at the end of the day. One hundred fifty thousand were expected and 600,000 people showed up. It turned into two days of magic, mud, mayhem and great, great music. (The Band's performance at Watkins Glen was recorded. Parts of it can be heard on the CD The Band Live At Watkins Glen.)

The Band, playing their first gig since New Year's Eve 1971, were scheduled between the Dead and the Allmans. Appearing on stage around 6 p.m., as they were often wont to do, they played as though their lives depended on it, only to be greeted by a downpour after eight songs, following a day of blistering, near overwhelming sun.

Fearing electrocution, they took a break. The rain let up a bit, and Hudson, feeling the urge, ambled back on stage easing into "The Genetic Method". As played the rain let up, the audience cheered and the Band exploded into "Chest Fever". It was a magic moment.

That same summer that the band played Watkins Glen, they started working on their album of oldies, Moondog Matinee. Named after Alan Freed's old Cleveland radio show, as well as beeing a pun on their fabled matinee shows in Toronto in the '60s, Moondog Matinee was an attempt to recreate a version of their old nightclub routine.

None of the tracks on the album were the sort of rock and roll commonly paraded by Sha Na Na and their ilk in the late '60s and early '70s. These were R&B covers from the heart of the Southland, leaning a little toward New Orleans. Bobby Bland's "Share You Love" vied with Lee Dorsey's "Holy Cow" and Clarence "Frogman" Henry's "Ain't Got No Home."

The album's centerpiece, perhaps, was a cover of "Mystery Train", originally recorded by Little Junior Parker's Blue Flames for Sun Records in Memphis and recorded by Elvis for his last Sun release two years later. Both version verged on the apocalyptic, and over the years the song and these two versions had taken on more and more mythology. Perhaps that's why the Band tackled it.

Robertson added new lyrics in three places ("because it wasn't long enough"). The Band's version starts with an atmospheric fake intro (which just happened to be left on the studio tapes that the band cut their version on - it sounded good enough so it was left). When the Band's version proper does get going, they roar like a locomotive. Hudson used a wah-wah on a clavinet or Roxochord, Robertson and Danko kept an ornery rhytm popping and Helm, with the help of second drummer Billy Mundi (ex-Mothers of Invention), chased his demons for just over five crazed mysterious moments.

The Band's cover of Clarence "Frogman" Henry's "Ain't Got No Home" was released as a single from Moondog Matinee. It didn't far too well commercially, only reaching #73, but of interest to collectors was the B-side, "Get Up Jake". The song had appeared earlier in a live version on Rock of Ages, but this was a studio version originally cut for The Band LP. Nobody remembers why it was dug out four years later as a B-side, and Robertson still much prefers the live version. That said, it actually has a nice groove and is currently available on an anthology compiled by this writer for Capitol titled To Kingdom Come.

Around the time of Moondog Matinee, there was talk of a much more ambitious project being worked on by the Band. Robertson had been listening to Polish composer Krzysztof Pendercki's "The St.Luke Passion" as well as material by American John Cage. Inspired, he decided he wanted to write an extended work which would have distinct sessions one could think of as songs, but which would have no discreet breaks between them. In other words, it would be one continous piece of music, from beginning to end. It was to be titled "Works."

"I worked on it for quite a while," recalled Robertson, "I'd get 15 minutes into it and I'd be exhausted in ideas, just trying to remember the whole thing in a way to get through it, just writing little symbols that I could connect. I don't write music [down on paper], I just think music. It was something that I wanted to do and I just never got to complete the idea."

Words were written and there was an overriding story to the work. Some pieces of it got used in other places and most recently one line, "Lay a flower in the snow," found its way into Robertson's tribute to the late Richard Manuel, "Fallen Angel", which appeared on Robertson's debut solo album released in 1987.

[Prev: "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots"] [Next: 1975's Miracle and the Last Waltz] [History Index]

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