"There's Still Togetherness"
by Nick LoganFrom Hit Parader, December 1971. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
The Band- now down to playing 10 to 15 gigs a year over four or five weekends...a couple of tours a year the rest of the time the Band stick around their homes in the Woodstock area where they have easy access to a 16 track studio. The Band now records in Bearsville at manager Albert Grossman's studio - previous albums had been made at Big Pink and Sammy Davis' former Hollywood home!
"When you've had two records and you still can't pay your bills..." The languid Southern drawl of Levon Helm spelled it out with honesty.."You get to figure something ain't quite right."
Levon, drummer with The Band was explaining the financial thinking behind their "Stage Fright" album. "Stage Fright" was a live, once-off job cut in about 14 days at the Woodstock Playhouse, a tiny theater in The Band's adopted and celebrated home town.
"Doing it the other way," explained Helm, "costs so much money."
"The other way" was the way of the Band's second album, a lavish production job for which the group rented the former Hollywood home of Sammy Davis Jr. and cut the set beside the swimming pool at as leisurely a pace as they could choose. "We just took all the time we wanted on that one. Nobody was thinking about how much the engineer was going to cost things like that. We got a bit knocked for "Stage Fright" - a few of the critics said we could have done better. I'm sure we could but it was as good as we could do it at the time.
"I guess we do pay our bills now. Everyone's got them a house. It doesn't worry me that much, the money, but after you get a couple of records and you came across that guitar you've always wanted and then you find you can't have it..." Levon's face lights up with a smile: "Sure I've got it now. It's a National dobro made around, oh, the early 1900's I guess. It's a beautiful job... metal sound box and all. You play it in a room with an electric guitar and it'll make as strong a sound - it don't need no amplification. That's the test."
I met up with The Band in London at the start of their last European tour. The Band don't tour much. Levon offered: "We usually play a couple of tours a year. I guess we do maybe 10 to 15 gigs over four or five weekends in a year. You can't do it all the time..living on vitamin pills and strange foods. You can't stay healthy."
Usually the Band sticks around Woodstock, although the legendary Big Pink was substituted for separate houses there some time ago. There's still the togetherness, mind...ten gruelling years together picking up the road dust through the States hadn't blunted their bond of friendship.
There's Garth Hudson, imposing, fascinating, Rick Danko, bland, inscrutable, Richard Manuel, black beard, laughing, a little too nervously, Robbie Robertson, The Band's intellectual voice, eager to please, Levon Helm, the lone American among Canadians.
Levon commented: "We get together maybe two or three of us and we just sit around and sing a lot of tunes that we remember. Just for our own amusement really but it keeps our hand in. If you can take a tune - a country tune maybe - and play it with a suburban flavor, that's the kind of thing we do. Or take a Motown tune and play it on country instruments, see how a fiddle might work out. I guess it does get through in our music - it makes our harmonies tighter. if it's a nice day though, we'll go across the park and play some football."
The Band records at Bearsville now, a studio that Albert Grossman, their manager, has had built near Woodstock and it's here that they mainly meet...with each other and with Bob Dylan when he's in the neighborhood. They play their songs to each other. "He helps us, we help him" says Levon Helm, adding: "Instead of sitting around at home and turning on a two track, we can go down to the studio and turn on a 16 track. And instead of having some fool come in and bootleg the music we can have CBS do it for us, nice and legit."
The fourth Band album was recorded at Bearsville. The Band brought a couple of tunes to finish it to London and booked some studio time there. Helm enthused over the British studios: "Really professional. A really clean sound."
The Band's life before Bob Dylan picked them off the road makes a sharp contrast to the leisurely pace they can afford to set themselves today. Though Helm is reluctant when it comes to talking about the early days, when Toronto born Robbie Robertson journeyed South in search of the Southern music home of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson. It was here The Band first got going, first as Levon and The Hawks, then more simply as The Hawks and latterly even more simple as The Band. Offere Levon: "You played six nights a week and if you were lucky you got a Sunday night dance as well. I really don't think much about those days- I'm just glad to be ina a position where we have people listen to us."
Pushed a bit, Levon tells of how in the clubs and bars they could, and did, turn their hand to just about anything in order to eat. James Brown, Ray Charles, old country tunes, rock tunes, dance tunes...a song for the occassion, always just one jump ahead of "Land of 1000 Dances."
In their own field they held a high degree of competence. "We figured we could play Lee Dorsey better than anyone else, except Lee Dorsey," says Levon.
In this kind of situation they quickly acquired the knack of keeping the customer and themselves, to a certain degree, satisfied. "If someone is propped against a bar half drunk," says Levon cannily, "you only have to play one number that he recognizes.
"The rest you can choose yourself!"
Meeting Bob Dylan, he understates, was a chance to play two nights a week instead of six. But he adds: "It really did seem the big time. Dylan, Robbie Robertson once told me, taught the Band an awful lot. How to meet important people, how to travel in places...and more.
Levon continued in the same vein: "Dylan, I guess, was where I first realized there was a lot more to music than just chords and a tight rhythm section.
"I was pretty awed by it. I didn't learn how to meet important people and how to be slick in interviews. Main thing was learning there was more to a song and to music. A lot of it rubbed off on The Band and not having to play every night, we got time to think... and time to write."
"After Dylan we started playing our own bars, our own gigs but this time" - he smiled - "the bars we were playing were Hollywood Bowl type bars!"
I started talking to Garth Hudson, back from a photo session and touched on the subject of keyboard players. This sparked off a 50 minute monologue in which Hudson rambled through the developments and important figue of...jazz. Fascinating, he stood there, puffing his cigarette and talking through clenched teeth, talking about Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell. And B. B. King, Freddie King and Albert King as the talk turned to guitarists.
Ben Webster too. Now here was a jazzman close to Hudson's heart. Webster, who plays tenor saxophone and is one of the great jazz figures, now lives in Europe and The Band had a chance to play with him in Germany. Garth Hudson wanted to so much but felt that the audience might not have shared his zeal and feared that the comparable applause for The Band might have hurt Webster's feelings.