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High on the Hog

by Geoffrey Himes

Review from New Country Magazine, June 1996, article reprinted without permission.
Album Rating: ****

When Robbie Robertson and the rest of the Band split into two camps in the late '70s, who ever thought Robertson would get the worst of the deal? After all, Robertson had written just about every important song the Band had ever recorded and his biting Stratocaster work was essential to the Canadian group's sound. As it turned out, though, Robertson's three solo albums have been embarrassing duds - he never could sing a lick and he seems to have forgotten how to write a song - while his ex-partners have released two superb efforts as the Band: 1993's Jericho and this year's High on the Hog.

Maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise that Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson have been able to thrive without their former leader. Helm, Danko and the late Richard Manuel handled the vocals in the Band's heyday, so the voices are still there; the rock-solid rhythm section is still there and so are Hudson's inimitable, intoxicating keyboard parts - which were even more crucial to the group's signature sound than Robertson's guitar licks. All the survivors needed to recapture the old magic was some good songs, and if one of your biggest fans is Bob Dylan, you have a head start in that department.

Dylan contributed "Blind Willie McTell", one of his best compositions of the '80s, to Jericho, and he provides the previously unreleased "I Must Love You Too Much" for High on the Hog. Danko sings this uptempo blues shuffle with the same fervor he brought to the similar "Holy Cow" on Moondog Matinee. Second drummer Randy Ciarlante fills the Manuel role as he, Danko and Helm recreate the Band's classic three-part harmonies of "The Weight" for "Forever Young", a song Dylan originally recorded with the Band on 1974's Planet Waves. Similar vocals and a lazy swamp feel bring new life to J.J. Cale's much-covered "Crazy Mama."

The other songs come from some surprising places. Ex-Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin not only adds extra guitar to two songs but also wrote a third, "Where I Should Always Be," a beautiful ballad reverie in the tradition of "Whispering Pines." Ancient blues legend Champion Jack Dupree (who died shortly after the session) co-wrote and hollered the lead vocals on "Ramble Jungle,", a hypnotic, polyrhythmic tribute to Africa containing elements of Professor Longhair's "Big Chief," Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and Bo Diddley's "Mona." Most surprising of all is En Vogue's 1992 hit, "Free Your Mind," a defense of hip-hop kids which is transformed by Helm's growling vocal and a punchy horn arrangement into a funky slab of Memphis soul, circa 1971.

As they did on Jericho, the Band's current members (who now include Ciarlante, guitarist Jim Weider and keyboardist Richard Bell) have dug up an old tape of Manuel delivering one of his stunning r&b vocals. This time it is the ballad "She Knows", written by Jimmy Griffin & Robb Royer of Bread and recorded live at a Manhattan club less than two months before he died in 1986. Nonetheless, High on the Hog is dominated by Hudson, whose keyboard and horn parts create the sort of unorthodox harmonies and atmospherics that make this far more than a desperate comeback attempt by a bunch of over-the-hill geezers. Hudson's four overdubbed saxophone parts turn the invitation of "Back to Memphis" into a sensual seduction, and his church-like organ brings out the hymnal qualities of "Forever Young."

No one would even suggest that Jericho and High on the Hog are as good as such masterpieces as Music from Big Pink or The Band, but they are certainly better than similar comeback attempts by Little Feat, Steely Dan and Roger McGuinn and than Robertson's last effort with the group, Islands.
-- Geoffrey Himes, New Country Magazine, June 1996

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