The Band, a once in a lifetime group comprised of some stellar musicians.. each an essential piece to making the soulful, homegrown sound we know and love. Rick Danko's fervent and vulnerable vocals, Robbie's guitar playing has a voice all its own, clean and limitless... Levon Helm with his southern roots, dueling drums and vocals, he makes it look so effortless. It's no nonsense with the quirky Garth Hudson dominating the organ and occasional Sax solo... And lest we forget, the multi-talented Richard Manuel on the keys who was lead vocals on most of the songs, he had an incredible ability to sing the baritones AND falsettos with such eloquence.
In the late 50's The Band got their start with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, they became his backing musicians dubbed, the Hawks. In 1964 they separated from Ronnie and by '66 they were touring with the ever so popular Bob Dylan, he is the one who gave them their infamous name... The Band. They moved to New York with Dylan and recorded an incredible record called The Basement Tapes, backing the offbeat superstar.
These influences would all contribute to their future endeavors as they broke away to create a name for themselves.. The Brown Album (1969) is The Band's second studio album. It's a real 'feel good' record, for lack of a better term. It's an album you want to cruise to... the album you listen to in the car on a long soul searching road trip. The songs have themes from the past and draw us back in time. I always felt like The Band was a group that couldn't be tied to an era, which is extraordinarily hard to accomplish for any musician. For a group of men growing up in the 60s, they had a way of bringing the feeling and emotion to old Americana.
Up on Cripple Creek is a perfect representation of The Band's American South roots, it's a bluesy rockin' tune with a real groovy beat. Below is their live version from the iconic The Last Waltz which was filmed in 1976. It's pretty darn magical to watch as they start off with the house lights down and then the spectacle when the room illuminates... just breathtaking. I can only imagine what it would have been to be in that room, in that moment. It reminds me of a quote from Hunter S. Thompson's quintessential Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas...
Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. ."
One of my most favorite tracks on the album is King Harvest.. A tune about a farmer who loses his crops. It's a bluesy gospel rock song with the organ wailing and Robbie's guitar work adding a twang which perfectly compliments Levon and Richard's vocals. Just marvelous.
The most elegant track on the album is without a doubt, Whispering Pines. It's a lovely representation of Richard Manuel's ability to access the falsetto in his voice, he has a velvety texture which sounds so exposed and passionate... little did we know that Manuel's voice may have been a representation of what he truly felt inside. He tragically passed on March 4th, 1986.
Jemima must be a fox because this next tune is about the lust of a man for a beautiful woman.. they manage to somehow make this 'hound dog' attitude sexy. Lead by the legendary Levon Helm, he did the ever so difficult lead vocals and drumming at the same time. It's loose, flirtatious and clever.
There really isn't much of a comparison for a band as talented as these 5 men, they were a huge influence to those who proceeded them. Although Richard, Rick and Levon have left us.. there is nothing like a spin of the old wax to keep their memory alive. I had the pleasure of going to see Robbie Robertson speak about his latest autobiography, Testimony last year. It was an honor to be in front of such a legend and to hear his stories of the glory days.