Mission Immersion 16.1 – The Band by The Band

Capitol 1969

Just pretend for one moment that you have never heard of The Band. Erase all the history you have come to learn about them as a music fan, and entertain the idea that they never existed, just for one moment. Or, think back to the time when you first heard the name. What was your reaction to hearing about a band called The Band? For me, I think it was a mixed bag of “Wow, these guys are really lazy” and “Wow, these guys are really cocky.” The latter may have been true, but the former could not be further from it. If there was ever a band that deserved such a simple yet high-status moniker reflective of the indescribable hard work and marrying of minds required to bring the individual ideas of a bunch of people together into a tangible whole, it was these guys.

By the time of the release of The Band, their second and best album, real music lovers everywhere suddenly realized what their name meant – they were The Band. For years, the five members honed their group chemistry to the point where other musicians couldn’t touch them. Then, after years of touring and perfecting their craft with Bob Dylan front and center, they learned from the best how to really write a song. The Band not only had all their bases covered, but they were loaded with the most well rounded players in the business. History notates The Band finding their true creative voice during The Basement Tapes sessions, which consisted of months of recording with Bob Dylan following his motorcycle accident. Though they mostly recorded Dylan originals, The Band also began writing and recording their own songs. Their unmistakable chemistry was strengthened even more in the process of re-interpreting and re-arranging some American standards with Dylan, which helped to usher in a completely new genre combining the sensibilities of folk, blues, rock and R&B, now known as Americana.

After listening to The Band pretty obsessively for the past month, I’ve found there is not much more to want of their self-titled album. One of only two albums in the original lineup’s catalog to feature all original tunes (the other would be their next, Stage Fright), it presents The Band at a moment in time when everything was happening for these guys. There is a simultaneous confidence and nonchalant quality to this record, and after listening to it a few times, it’s easy to think The Band could have done anything and it would have been great. The album is not overwrought or overproduced in any way, but it’s certainly not sloppy – it’s that happy medium that all bands hope to find. Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel are the resident songwriting dream team, both with earthy voices that ooze booze and pained longing. Multi-instrumentalists Levon Helm and Rick Danko (who both sang and wrote occasionally) had that sought-after ability to fill out the sound of a song to perfection with nearly any instrument they touched, and were a perfect rhythm section to boot. Last but certainly not least, Garth Hudson – perhaps my favorite Band member – could transform the most basic of tunes into an ethereal, other-worldly wonder with just a few strokes of the keys.

Over the years, Robertson has become “the villain”, thanks to his repeated rebuffs to The Band’s surviving members who have sued him numerous times for royalties over the years – and you know, I would probably be more annoyed with Robertson if I knew more of The Band’s back story. It seems out of all the members, though, Robertson had his shit together better than anyone. He was not as tempted or affected by drug use, and it seems he kept The Band’s ship tighter than it would have been otherwise. Plus, he is a wonderful songwriter, and the bulk of material on The Band is credited to him. They were also the perfect vehicle for Helm’s voice, a superb mix of boogin and seasoned pro, most notably on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Rag Mama Rag”.

Despite Robertson’s assured leading, the songs and vocal performances of his partner Manuel are the definite highlights of the album. “When You Awake” is an unusual but beautiful mix of dark and light, and it acts as a sort of companion piece to what may be The Band’s best song (and definitely Manuel’s), “Whispering Pines”. When fans of The Band speak of Manuel, they rarely fail to mention two things: His battles with drug and alcohol addiction, and the emotional pain he seems to be bearing in most of his vocal performances. Listening to “Whispering Pines”, it’s easy to tell why many people speak of the latter. Manuel’s moan lurches through with restless abondon over slow, smoldering chord changes reminiscent of a Procol Harum progression stood upon its head, and nearly every moment of melodic resolve is forgone for a new cavernous passage. As Manuel floats along these forked roads of melody, it’s almost as if we are moving deeper and deeper into the wells of a tortured human soul.

Though this and The Band’s first album are pretty close to bona fide classics, these unforgettable highs perhaps flew them a bit too close to the Sun. As their next two albums (though good) would further prove, The Band peaked early, and their remaining years would be a slow descent into inter-band conflict, untimely deaths and fogey cover band status. They would eventually reunite several times, as well as come amazingly close to recapturing the old magic on the classic live album and accompanying Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. Sadly, in the end, the story and trajectory of The Band never equaled the magic of their inherent musical chemistry. ****1/2

Listening again? Definitely

**Correction: Originally I said Robertson sang “Dixie” and “Rag Mama Rag”, but a very kind reader pointed out that was false and Levon Helm actually sang those. I have since made the correction.

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5 Responses to “Mission Immersion 16.1 – The Band by The Band”

  1. Marcia McGuinness Says:

    Robbie didn’t sing ‘The Night The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or Rag Mama Rag, Levon Helm sang lead vocals on both these tracks.

    • recordgeekheaven Says:

      Thanks for the clarification! I’m still elarning about these guys. Gotta read some books! 🙂

      • Marcia McGuinness Says:

        No problem, other than that error, I enjoyed your article! Try reading Levon’s This Wheels on Fire, this is a great insight into the history of The Band and there is also Across The Great Divide by Barney Hoskins, not as good as Levon’s but it’s a great informative read 🙂

  2. Marcia McGuinness Says:

    Sorry typo : Hoskyns

    • recordgeekheaven Says:

      Thanks for the recommendations! After getting so into the self-titled record, I definitely need to read more. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is singing when there are so many singers in a group! I think I’ve got it figured out, though. I hear Helm’s book is pretty good, so I’ll probably start there. Thanks again for reading!!

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