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The Band Plays On

by Ron Bally

From The Tucson Weekly, June 1996. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Two Decades After Robbie Robertson's Departure, The Boys Are Still Doing Their Thing.

THE BAND IS still alive and kickin' and frankly, it's never really been away. Oh sure, Robbie Robertson departed long ago (1976), but remaining original members Levon Helm (drums and vocals), Rick Danko (bass and vocals) and Garth Hudson (keyboards and horns) continue the legacy this Friday, May 10, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. (Tragically, the fifth founding member, Richard Manuel, committed suicide in 1986.)

With The Band: The current incarnation of one of the rock world's musical giants
Despite Robertson's departure, bouts with drug and alcohol addiction, solo ventures and periods of inactivity, the remaining members re-emerged triumphantly in 1990. The Band solidified with the addition of permanent members Jim Wieder (guitar), Richard Bell (keyboards) and Randy Ciarlante (percussion and vocals), creating a line-up that has endured for nearly seven years now. With the addition of Ciarlante's high-harmony vocals, The Band regained the group's signature three-part vocal structure integral to their sound.

"We had to change the vocal concept around quite a bit," Ciarlante says via telephone hours prior to a gig in Orlando, Florida, "because replacing Richard Manuel is like trying to replace Michael Jordan. I'm a singer, but I just try to fill the chord out--to get in there somehow and make that blend happen because Rick Danko is really the hook when it comes to the vocals. He's an amazing guy for harmonies--he's got a timbre on his voice that's incredible."

The Band are touring in support of their latest album High On The Hog, released this past February, representing their only second studio album in two decades. Their 1993 comeback effort Jericho received world-wide critical acclaim, and sold surprisingly well. Despite nine of ten songs consisting of cover tunes, the unmistakable Band sound is clearly stamped on High On The Hog. The lack of original material is noticeable, but the performances are uniquely The Band's. Ciarlante makes no excuses for their choice of covers.

"The guys like singing 'em and we like playing 'em," he explains. "We can open up. Every year we're trying to develop a little bit more. The first three or four years, we were just sort of learning the ropes on how The Band was supposed to work and trying not to get too far away from what the boys had back in the '70s. When we did Jericho, I guess we got away from it a bit."

The Band sound simultaneously intense and relaxed with the familiar material of Bob Dylan ("Forever Young"), J.J. Cale ("Crazy Mama"), Blondie Chaplin ("Where I Should Always Be"), and the improbable En Vogue ("Free Your Mind").

"This particular record really got The Band driving the car, so to speak," Ciarlante elaborates. He credits producer Aaron L. Hurwitz for resurrecting their declarative style. "He has a keen ear on how to mix everything to make it sound like the old Band. That's what we're really trying to do. We're looking at this thing as a 15-round fight--we're only in the sixth or seventh round. We're developing musical content as we go. The next record we come out with might have 13 or 14 original songs on it depending on where everybody's head is at. We have quite a few original tracks that are still sitting on the shelf. They're not completed, but the basic tracks are down."

Manuel's haunting vocals are revived on the heartfelt ballad "She Knows," recorded at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City months before his death; unlike Robertson, a Band member for all eternity. High On The Hog is a rustic, earthy sounding album steeped in traditional Americana roots influences: blues, folk, R&B, gospel, country & western, and of course, rock and roll. The album's warm and funky simplicity rekindles memories of The Band's casual and familial approach to recording.

The musical stew here is nearly as vibrant and refreshing as The Band's 30-year-old debut platter, Music From Big Pink--an album that singlehandedly spawned the "roots music" or "country rock" revolution which emerged in the late '60s. What they delivered was a new brand of rock and roll in which folk impressions and a foresight of fabled America met the '60s head-on. Their music offered a truly comprehensive North American sound--authentic imagery spiked with unbridled passion and poignancy. Brash performances and understated arrangements reflected the ensemble skill of the original Band.

The Band became one of the most successful and respected touring bands of the early '70s. The Band's faceless solidarity and steadfast desire to be indentified only by its body of work was probably the inspiration for its generic sounding name. Many fans and historians forget that The Band appeared at both Woodstock festivals (although conspicuously absent from the film and soundtracks).

Helm blamed Roberston for The Band's '76 break-up in his candid autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, contending that Robertson monopolized songwriting credits when the entire band had contributed. Granted, Robertson wrote the bulk of the lyrics, but each member contributed to the formation of the songs, each played an assortment of instruments, and Helm, Danko and Manuel all shared lead vocal duties. If there was one trademark of The Band's sound it was the vocal arrangements. All three voices remained distinctive in the mix, and were not blended together to sound like their counterparts, The Beatles and Beach Boys.

Robertson's solo efforts are mediocre at best, further proof that The Band were truly a communal force. Ciarlante says he, Wieder and Bell don't care about the comparisons with the Robertson-era band.

"That's gonna happen till the end of time," he says matter-of-factly. "Those guys were what they were. Robertson is what he was. I'll tell you the truth, it doesn't really bother us at all. Maybe a few years back it was stifling for us, but we've grown out of that. Levon is our biggest ally. He's built The Band back again."

Ciarlante acknowledges the importance of The Band legacy, but is fully aware of the current line-up's contributions.

"When it comes to the music, Garth Hudson is the leader," he admits. "Rick and Levon are the leaders when it comes to the vocals. And when it comes to making them sound good we're (Bell, Weider and Carlante) the leaders. It's quite a gumbo. The more we play the stronger we get."

Just don't call 'em The Band, sans Robbie. Call 'em The Band, period. And let's hope they play for 30 more years.

The Band performs Friday, May 10, at the Rialto Theater, 318 E. Congress St. Special guest John Wesley Harding opens. Tickets are $18.50 in advance, from Dillard's. Ticket price is $19 day of show. Call 740-1986 for more information.

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