Cambridge Corn Exchange, 19 June 1996
by Peter VineyThis article first appeared in Jawbone.
Set ListBack to Memphis
Stuff You Gotta Watch
Blind Willie McTell
It Makes No Difference
Rag Mama Rag
The Shape I'm In
The Genetic Method
Willie & The Hand Jive (with Four Men & A Dog)
Twenty years on from The Last Waltz, and what on Earth were they doing here? During the support act, Four Men & A Dog, I passed my time during the third violin-driven reel by counting the audience. There were 97 people downstairs in the standing area. A few more were upstairs in the gallery. Once The Band came on, I had better things to do than count heads, but I’d estimate 250 people at the outside, at £16 a head. Work out the economics of flying the group, crew and equipment here from Europe (let alone the USA), hotels, food, tour bus hire, local road crew, the venue’s profits and agency fees and it seems that all 250 of us were heavily subsidised by The Band for an almost private performance. It was great standing six feet from the stage, with people wandering around as they felt like. But I don’t see it. In the last few months I’ve seen Van Morrison and k.d. lang fill 3000 seat halls with no trouble, at much higher prices, and that’s for much longer UK tours including larger venues than 3000 seaters. I don’t see any significant difference in their current musical stature and potential drawing power. OK, Van has worked the UK halls hard for years to build his loyal following, and k.d. has a cult audience, but The Band only played two UK dates on this tour. They were their first UK shows since the Nostell Priory festival in 1984. Before that it was 1974, and I was there too - it was at Wembley Stadium. Attendance probably wasn’t helped by no posters, no advertising, and adverts for the London date at The Forum the next day saying “only UK date.” I’d seen them two years earlier in Vancouver, playing to around 400 people at The Vogue Theater, a converted cinema. Then there was no publicity either, just an interview with Danko in the morning paper, that sent me racing down to TicketMaster. In Canada that was enough to fill the hall. At least in Cambridge they were selling T-shirts. To say that they seem poorly managed would be a great understatement.
The Band are one of the tightest touring outfits around. I was told that Levon Helm and Rick Danko were both unwell on the day, and they didn’t look their brightest. The three original members, Rick, Levon and Garth Hudson, are supported by Richard Bell (piano), Randy Ciarlante (drums, vocals) and Jim Weider (guitar). Over the last two years the balance within The Band seems to have shifted. Bell, Ciarlante and Weider no longer seem like sidemen. In many areas they hold the sound together, as all three have grown in confidence and stature. A few years back, Weider was trying to fill the biggest shoes in rock guitar, and replayed Robbie Robertson’s guitar solos carefully, complete with Telecaster (though Robbie now uses a Strat). On this tour, Weider’s guitar work is exemplary and he’s made the solos his own. Richard Bell is in the late Richard Manuel’s piano seat, and though no one can replace Richard’s voice, Bell is a flashier, probably better, pianist. He is much more prominent in their stage sound. Randy Ciarlante is the second drummer, while also taking some of Richard Manuel’s vocal parts. The twin drum sound is a powerhouse, and Ciarlante is great on his own when Levon switches to mandolin or bass. In fact, when Ciarlante moves to bass for Caledonia Mission, the sound of Levon alone is noticeably less powerful than Ciarlante alone. Levon’s still the best drummer in rock, but he’s got used to being one of a pair of drummers, and I guess he just isn’t smacking the skins as hard as he did. Ciarlante had also joined Four Men & A Dog on stage for two numbers. Danko and Helm have said that Garth Hudson is the leader, and that The Band as a unit don’t exist without him. Garth is still the instrumental star of the show, shifting from keyboards to saxophones or accordion.
The set was predictable. It hasn’t changed much in the last three years, and we didn’t get as many songs from the new album, High on The Hog, as I would have expected. A couple of High on the Hog songs that had appeared on the American leg of the tour had disappeared (Free Your Mind, The High Price of Love). Another, Crazy Mama, has been a feature of their act - and the acts of various solo combinations - since at least 1979. They started with a slightly ragged Back to Memphis, which has a lovely, leisurely, oozing sound, highlighted by Garth’s sax solo. Then it was a Levon Helm obligatory boogie on Muddy Waters’ Stuff You Gotta Watch leading rapidly into their Canadian hit from Jericho, Remedy. All of them seemed short. Maybe it was because they were so good that time flew. The Band have tried to lessen their reliance on past glories (which means Robbie Robertson compositions, even though they still played eight of them), and finding songwriters of Robertson’s stature has been a major problem. When the replacement writer is Bob Dylan, and later Bruce Springsteen, the material has quality that they can fully exploit. The next song up was Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, and was also the first point of the evening where Danko’s voice got its full exposure. Robbie Robertson has described a high Canadian sound which Danko and Neil Young possess today, and Richard Manuel exemplified, and when it’s let loose they begin to have the sound of their heyday. On Blind Willie McTell, you also get that vocal contrast as Danko and Helm swap verses. They had moved up a gear.
The first number from the original line-up followed, Ophelia. It’s not ever been my favourite. There are several moments from the past which deserve attention more. But the past is a problem for them. Levon hasn’t sung The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down since 1976 (supposedly he’s taken against what he sees as a Robertson pastiche of the South). Other great songs, like King Harvest and I Shall Be Released would seem like sacrilege without Manuel’s voice. The Band decide which songs work on stage very soon after an album’s release, then stick with them. The song which they have performed on every show without fail for twenty years came next. It was another track from Northern Lights Southern Cross, It Makes No Difference. Rick Danko sings this so well that I guess he won’t stand near a microphone without performing it. The solo took in a shift from Weider’s guitar to Hudson’s sax that was the first true piece of aural magic in the set, and as Danko’s voice soared through the hall they sounded as good as they ever have.
The modern line up tends to leave the musical chairs game to Garth, but since 1993 they have usually incorporated a sub-set where people get to shift around. It started with a pretty rough Rag Mama Rag with Levon playing mandolin from the drum stool. There were two electrifying keyboard solos from Hudson and Bell, but Danko took the opportunity to sit down on a high chair. Sitting doesn’t seem to demonstrate commitment to that funky beat, even though Fripp has done it for years. I also once saw Van Morrison sit for most of a Southampton concert and get away with it, but Danko just looked tired. Levon stayed on mandolin for Atlantic City with outstanding vocals from both of them. Then Randy Ciarlante moved to bass guitar for Big Pink ‘s Caledonia Mission. This is an unusual revival for them, demonstrating the rich possibilities of more obscure bits of the back catalogue. Danko moved to acoustic guitar and sang lead. This has been featuring in their act since 1994, and I thought this version had some rough bits, but never mind. As Danko sang I do believe in your hexagram … I was pulled back to the original album, where this song stuck in my head as much as anything else. No complaints. Ciarlante handed the bass guitar to Levon Helm and they moved into J.J. Cale’s Crazy Mama. This is a Danko lead vocal again, but it was hard to take your eyes off Levon as he plucked out the bass line. He really enjoys standing out front for a change. It did occur to me that Danko probably shifts to guitar for the songs with the most repetitive bass lines! If you look through the credits for High on the Hog Danko only plays bass on five out of eleven numbers, leaving bass to Richard Bell’s keyboard or to Levon Helm. I thought back to the 1994 show where Danko had strolled cheerfully and confidently around the stage while reeling out terrific bass lines. He was much, much more static and subdued at Cambridge, and I still get the impression that bass is just too boring for him most of the time.
Once The Band were back in their original positions, they launched into The Weight, with Ciarlante taking the lead on a verse. Well, they always do it magnificently, but you can’t help feeling sorry for them when the ending gets the biggest applause of the evening. It must seem like an albatross around their necks. I felt that in Canada the applause had been more evenly distributed across the set. Danko was on lead vocal for Stage Fright, which was followed by a Chuck Berry instrumental, Deep Feeling. It was originally the 1957 B-side of School Day, which Levon Helm once said was the first record he ever bought. It’s a live staple which they have never recorded, and basically it’s a blues instrumental showpiece for Weider and Bell. In the Ronnie Hawkins era, and just afterwards, The Hawks played a lot of instrumentals. They had to play long sets, and their voices needed a rest. This seemed to have the same function. The alternative instrumental over the last two years has been Many Rivers To Cross. I’d been waiting for the next number all evening, a raucous version of Stand Up which is the best demonstration of how tight and solid they sound. The Coasters’ hit Young Blood (1957 again) came next. This featured on the Doc Pomus tribute album, and was a bonus track on British and Japanese versions of High on the Hog. Ciarlante moved to congas, but the highlight for everyone was seeing Garth sing a line for the first time. The main set closed with The Shape I’m In, originally a Manuel vocal, which Danko has managed to salvage quite seamlessly.
The encore started with Garth wandering out to his keyboards and weaving the solo piece that introduces Chest Fever. It’s changed so much over the years that it seems odd to continue calling it The Genetic Method. Perhaps Young Blood had got him going, because he worked a deliberate laugh by turning his baseball cap round for one section, then later pulled a mic over to growl ‘How do I get out of this one?’ He also mimed looking round for the others to arrive as if in great consternation. They usually snap into Chest Fever like an explosion, but the join was definitely rough here. Nevertheless, Randy Ciarlante led with a superb vocal. The second encore brought Four Men & A Dog on stage, adding guitar and violin, for Willie & The Hand Jive. As Four Men & A Dog have been rightly described as ‘traditional Irish music with a Bo Diddley beat’, this was a great combination. And that was it. No crush to get out, either.
So, where are The Band now? They deserve better management and bigger venues, that’s for sure. Why don’t they get them? Some of their problems as a live act are long standing. Let’s go back to the comparison with Van Morrison and fellow-Canadian k.d. lang. Van Morrison is similar in his bar band informal approach, and remains a major live act both because he keeps writing new material, and because he re-arranges his old songs in new and unpredictable ways. The same is true of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. You know you’ll hear something new and different at one of their concerts. The Band don’t write new material, and their set changes very little, their arrangements hardly at all. The Band’s arrangement of Stage Fright is much what it was on 1971 tapes. Danko is an under-exploited resource. He’s written for Danko, Fjeld, Anderson, but not for The Band in years. Towards the end, as he chants Stand up! or Hand Jive! into the front mic he doesn’t look that involved in the proceedings. The comparison with k.d. lang is also relevant. k.d. lang has charisma of the Springsteen / Dylan level. I don’t think either The Band or Van Morrison have the same instant presence. The Band exude musicianship and affability, but it was always hard for them to be charismatic when two of the three lead singers were confined to a piano stool and a drum stool. It’s equally hard for the man in the spotlight, Danko, to exude charisma when he was only taking a third of the lead vocals. At Cambridge, Danko was square in front of Levon, obscuring him for the centre of the audience. In Vancouver, both drum kits were extreme stage left, and Helm was hidden in a sea of cymbals. Even in the old days, Manuel was hardly ever filmed and badly lit at extreme stage right.
Whatever, The Band need to change their act more often. They’ll probably have to play The Weight and It Makes No Difference till kingdom come, but they could afford to be freer with new material. Everyone I spoke to was hoping to see what Levon would make of Free Your Mind, but to be fair it’s such a horn driven number that it seems destined to join Life Is A Carnival as something they prefer to do whenever they can afford a horn section. I was also hoping to hear a live Forever Young, but given the half-filled hall you could hardly expect a long set. Why not also mine some never performed back-catalogue stuff like Daniel & The Sacred Harp or Jupiter Hollow? Danko showed the way when he unearthed Twilight from an obscure 1975 single and made it into a stage centrepiece for his solo act, and later for The Band. At times, the act has had too many cheerful, worthy R&B classics in it. Why trawl through a Muddy Waters’ number or Caldonia when you could be rocking just as hard with Jawbone or Look Out Cleveland? Or if you want a straight R&B song, why not Strawberry Wine? There’s nothing wrong with covers. Springsteen used to do a different classic cover almost every time he played. k.d. lang makes a feature of unexpected cover versions, too. Tom Jones’ What’s New Pussycat was the arch cover on the 96 tour (I nearly said “tongue in cheek” instead of arch). But The Band should attempt some more interesting ones. Randy Newman’s Kingfish has sometimes featured in recent years, as has Many Rivers To Cross, and a few years ago they were doing Rivers of Babylon and Blaze of Glory - both slightly unexpected, fun things. They need to get a bit more unpredictable generally. They need to differentiate live performances from album tracks more. Above all, they need better venues and management support. You won’t hear any line-up in the world that could blow them off the stage. They have a great history to draw from, and they can still cut it today. There’s something missing though. It’s hard to define, but I reckon it could simply be the glow of the success and acclaim that they deserve.