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The History Of The Band

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1975's Miracle and the Last Waltz

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.

In 1971, after the recording of Cahoots, Robertson had moved up to Montreal while the rest of the Band had stayed in Woodstock. Suffering one cold winter too many, in 1973 Robertson moved to Los Angeles, eventually to be joined by the rest of the Band. There they leased a ranch, outfitting it with a recording studio, which they named "Shangri-La."

Once again they were back within what could be termed a clubhouse situation ("We could indulge in time with the studio in the house", emphasized Hudson). In 1975 they finally dug in earnest, emerging at the end of the year with a studio album of original material, Northern Lights - Southern Cross. It was the Band's finest effort since their second album. For most Band fans, having almost given up on ever seeing new material, this seemed like a miracle.

The album sported only eight songs but they were all extended in length. Robertson took a number of guitar solos and Hudson seemed to take on a more active role. Equipped with 24 tracks and the new synthesizer technology, including an RMI computer keyboard, ARP and Roland monophonic solo synths, a Mini Moog, an ARP string ensemble and the new Lowrey Symphonizer, Hudson could paint like never before. On several songs, the keyboard parts alone took eight or more tracks. Given that is was recorded prior to the advent of computerized mixing, this must have been a hell of an album to finish.

The record was a richly evocative masterpiece. "It Makes No Difference" captured Danko at his most emotional. Robertson's introductory guitar line and solo were probably his best playing on record since "King Harvest". Hudson played all the horns on the album, contributing a great soprano saxophone part that exquisitely responded to Danko's vocal on the final verse of the song.

Oddly enough, Minnie Pearl's real name inspired the title of the song "Ophelia". The song was somewhat reminiscent of "Life Is A Carnival," as, largely via Danko's bass, it sports a good-time New Orleans feel. Helm sang the lead vocal supported by Manuel, while Hudson played an array of brass, wind and synthesizer parts.

"Acadian Driftwood" was the album's cornerstone. It is one of Robertson's all-time masterpieces, the equal to anything else the Band ever recorded. The song chronicles the story of a people displaced, the Acadians who were exiled from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1750s. (Most of the Acadians eventually made their way to Southwest Louisiana where they became known as Cajuns.) Robertson's ability to create a fictional historical voice that can speak so eloquently for several thousand real ones is a rare and precious gift.

Hudson on accordion and Byron Berline on fiddle created the appropriate Cajun feel. Danko, Manuel and Helm all shared the vocal. Manuel played clavinet while Robertson added an acoustic guitar. Hudson further overdubbed piccolo and bagpipe chanter. The net result is evocative and magical.

There was one outtake from Northern Lights - Southern Cross called "Twilight" that was to appear nine months later on The Best Of The Band compilation. The Band had played it extensively on their final full-fledged tour in the summer of 1976 but had not included it on the original album as there was a general dissatisfication with the performance on the recording. A couple of years back, Robertson mused that "It's a song that some country singer [like] George Jones should sing."

After such a strong "comeback" it was surprising that the Band's career was to come to a close within a year. Dissatisfied with Capitol and looking at a multi-million dollar deal with Warner Brothers, the group needed to deliver one more album before its relationship with Capitol could be severed.

In the meantime the Band had also decided to call a halt to touring. After their summer tour of 1976 they announced they were going to play one final show on Thanksgiving at Winterland in San Francisco, the site of their very first gigs in the spring of 1969. They were inviting a number of guests who had either interacted with them or influenced them. The list was unbelievable: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Bobby Charles, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond.

A film, directed by Martin Scorsese, was made of the event and a triple album was eventually released on Warner Brothers a year and a half later in April 1978. The album contained five sides of live material as well as one side of studio work collectively called "The Last Walts Suite". Included on this final studio side were such gems as "Evangeline" with Emmylou Harris, the soulful "Out Of The Blue", a remake of "The Weight" with the Staple Singers, as well as "The Last Waltz Theme".

To clear the way for the Waltz, the Band needed to give Capitol one more record. Islands was that record. Following Northern Lights - Southern Cross, it seemed little more than an afterthought.

"We were just trying to get out of a contract. It wasn't an album," stated Robertson emphatically. "We were not in an album mode.". Rather, it was bits and pieces from here and there as well as a number of new recordings. The title track was an instrumental written by Danko and Hudson that to this day Danko says awaits lyrics from Robertson. What was completed, in general, was slicker than what the Band had previously recorded. Released in March 1977, the album commercially fared worse than any Band record, reaching only #64 on Billboard's album charts.

Despite all this, the album does have its moments, including a driving take of Sam and Dave's "Ain't That A Lot Of Love"," one more cryptic tale of mythology , "The Saga Of Pepote Rouge," Robertson's exquisite and rather tranquil seasonal number "Christmas Must Be Tonight", Richard Manuel's aching and impassioned cover of "Georgia On My Mind" and the rather crazed "Knockin' Lost John", featuring Robertson's first lead vocal since Big Pink's "To Kingdom Come." Referring to the latter, Robertson said, "It's one of the weirdest things we've ever done. I have no idea what's going on in this thing. It was just an expression, some kind of off-beat idea. It was almost like a `Basement Tapes' approach."

"Pepote Rouge" was one of those songs that had been around for a while and was finished for this project. The same is probably true for "Ain't That A Lot Of Love" and maybe even "Georgia" while "Christmas Must Be Tonight" was, oddly enough, inspired by the birth of Robertson's son Sebastian in July 1976.

With the Last Waltz the Band was supposedly calling a halt to touring only. Studio albums were expected to follow but for a variety of reasons never did. As late as two years later various Band member were still talking about the "next" Band album, but the whole thing gradually petered out, with nobody making the effort.

In the end, the story of the Band is one of teamwork. They were a unique entity. John Simon refers to them as "wonderfully selfless and wonderfully paragmatic." Individually and collectively, they would do whatever was appropriate for each song, paying attention to minute details for every instrument on every song.

Still fewer bands had as many influences thoroughly digested and at their beck and call. Collectively they embodied virtually every North American roots music. Whatever they were drawn upon, for all of them the song was the most important element and in Robbie Robertson they had a gifted story-teller with a feeling for the land, for people, for traditions and mythology. In Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel they had singers who could passionately convey any conceivable emotion, and in Garth Hudson they had the consummate painter of melodies and moods.

It was a fortuitous combination for which we have many historical accidents to thank, not the least of which was Ronnie Hawkins' decision to head north. Further, few ensembles ever get to play together for eight years before cutting their first album. The Band did and that surely made a big difference. So did their encounter with Bob Dylan, as did their two years of relief from the road at Woodstock.

For a 16-year career there are relatively few recorded documents. What is there is quite an emotional, stirring and evocative legacy.

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