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Band on the Rerun

Rowdy, haunting and resonant, The Band is the voice of a vanished America.

by Richard Gehr

From My Generation Magazine, 02.03.2001. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

A gorgeous melancholy lies at the core of the music created by The Band, four Canadian rockers and an Arkansas drummer who, some argue, brought the pop experiments of '60s psychedelia to a twangy, appealingly old-timey halt. They claimed to be "rebelling against rebellion" of the times in their majestic debut album, 1968's Music from Big Pink, and its even more successful follow-up The Band. But rarely has musical reactionism sounded so free-spirited, inventive and knowing.

Five Great Band Tracks You'll Never Hear on Classic-Rock Radio
  1. "Whispering Pines," The Band
  2. "In a Station," Music from Big Pink
  3. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," The Band
  4. "The Rumor," Stage Fright
  5. "Jupiter Hollow," Northern Lights- Southern Cross
We're waylaid at another musical crossroads now, only this time it's electronic pop - not to mention slickly packaged boy groups and teen coquettes - making the old seem old again. What better time to reaffirm the eternal verities than by reissuing The Band's catalog, as its label has done, in warmly remastered CDs containing unreleased tracks and outtakes?

Painting their masterpiece

The Band's second album expressed nostalgia for an America that never really existed. An even more moving sense of beauty and despair marbled Stage Fright, which chronicles the price of talent and celebrity, and its follow-up, Cahoots, which finds The Band as lost at America was at the time - yet still capable of casting the confusion in a dozen swinging settings.

Fact is, The Band was always the sound of things falling apart. From "Tears of Rage," a ballad from Big Pink to Cahoots' closer, "The River Hymn," prophecies of decline, punctuated by moments of redemption, were The Band's biblically inspired stock-in-trade. Storms, war, pestilence, betrayal, addiction - it's all there in these first four albums.

An American Band

The Band - bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm, keyboardist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel and guitarist Robbie Robertson - played together for a decade before releasing their first album. Then, in 1965, Bob Dylan plucked them from being a Jersey Shore residence to be his backup band.

In 1967, Dylan and The Band virtually fathered the alternative country sound - such fine albums as Uncle Tupelo's No Depression and Wilco's Being There reflect this grassroots ambition - by recording what became known as the Basement Tapes during long, inebriated afternoons in the legendary house, Big Pink. Songs ranged from Dylan originals to hoary folk melodies gleaned from archivist Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (released in 1952, reissued in 1997). From such raw material, The Band constructed its timeless rock miniatures.

The Weight

Fame, fortune and human fallibility eventually transformed The Band into tragic characters ripped from their own songs. The groups final two album Northern Lights - Southern Cross and Islands, are not the stuff of legend, and the original combo never performed together following the 1977 filming of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, a troubled swan song that featured Robertson perhaps too prominently. Manuel committed suicide in 1987 and Danko died of general lifestyle excess in 1999. The Band's career arc resembles the Beatles', with early rock primitivism blossoming into brilliance before declining into tragedy and eternal rediscovery. As their music implied time and again, the good times were over before they ever began.

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