important music in color
1968: Music From Big Pink. 1969: The Band. 1970: Stage Fright. 1971: Cahoots. 1972: Rock of Ages. 1973: Moondog Matinee. 1974: Before the Flood (Bob Dylan and the Band). 1975: Northern Lights-Southern Cross. 1977: Islands. 1978: The Last Waltz * Anthology. 1993: Jericho. 1995: Live at Watkins Glen.
In the mid-sixties, The Band loomed larger than life given their history as rock and roll pioneers (they had backed Ronnie Hawkins and toured the USA as early as 1961, and, later, were Bob Dylans first electric combo). This perhaps explains why Music From Big Pink stands as one of the most overrated releases from 1968, and "The Weight" their most overrated song. Early on, hyperbole built a scaffold from which critics would hang The Band.
Dave Marsh, writing about the impact of the release of Music From Big Pink, said the two-keyboard approach "was quickly picked up by a number of bands, most notably Procol Harum;" but Procol Harum released their first album before the The Bands debut. If their classical meets r&b style has to be attributed to somebody, it was more likely Al Koopers sound on Blonde on Blonde. Greil Marcus devoted forty-four pages to The Band in his vague, 268 page essay Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock & Roll Music, only to suggest that they werent much good after their first two albums. Marcus claimed that The Band had "determination to find plurality and drama in an America we had met too often as a monolith." Marcus theory of "the worried man" voice behind The Bands music, a thematic voice that Marcus used to bolster the Bands status as artists with ultra-American themes, seems to have been based on a misreading of a few of Richard Manuels rather sentimental songs.
As far as plurality goes, The Band, as led by Robbie Robertson, was thematically resourceful, but at times shallow. "Caledonia Mission," "Chest Fever," "Lonesome Suzie," "Rag, Mama, Rag," "Up On Cripple Creek," "Jemima Surrender," "Smoke Signal," "Volcano," "Ophelia," "Ring Your Bells," "It Makes No Difference," "Livin In a Dream" and Right as Rain," most of them done up in that wonderfully ragged and woolly Band-style, are love songs with a sepia-colored Southern flavor and nothing more (or less). On "Tears of Rage," "We Can Talk," "Long Black Veil," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Rockin Chair," "The Unfaithful Servant and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", The Band didnt explicate themes as much as they appropriated Americana on subject matter that included whores and truckers, failed crops, the Civil War, unfaithful servants, the Great Depression, Biblical apocalypse, and the Worker's Union. Everything that Robertson would be accused of doing wrong on later band albums and in his solo work, was present on these early release: obfuscation ("Kingdom Come," "Caldonia Mission," "The Weight," "In a Station," "Lookout Cleveland," "Jawbone,"); sloppy narrative ("Caledonia Mission," "The Weight," "Across the Great Divide," When You Awake), questionable moralizing ("Kingdom Come," "When You Awake"), underwritten song structures (Robertson didnt care much for bridges or elaboration; he usually followed a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/verse/chorus pattern a pattern that would soon stifle The Band: though this approach would include eight songs on The Band which is an obvious exception).
Released in 1969, The Band came closest in wedding the groups time-machine style with Robertsons archaic content. Outside of albums by the likes of Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and other bluegrass-based groups, The Band was the most timelessly rustic album released that year by supposed rock and roll artists. The Bands tales were accompanied by Levon Helms I-aint-goin-nowhere-in-a-hurry back-beat drumming which created a sublime pacing and firm sense of drama and place; Rick Dankos funky bass originality seemed to draw inspiration from classic bass forms that sounded new again; Garth Hudsons intellectualized, but naturally integrated, keyboard tinkering was as multi-varied and whimsical as later-day synthesizer; Richard Manuels percussive piano could quietly push or rambunctiously carry the band. Robbie Robertson had the taste and good sense to stay out of the way. The vocals were shared by everyone except Hudson, and they all sounded slightly hillbilly. If the songs suggested more than they actually were, that was okay given the ornate completeness of the old-fashioned musical style. What was important about the band was their sound and their playing, not their themes they were a triumph of form over content.
Robbie Robertson, as a songwriter, has often serenaded himself. Hes described The Bands approach as "where everybody was getting louder and louder and louder, we were getting softer and softer and softer. And we tried to do things that had a sensitivity, a musical sensitivity that was, to us, anyway, better than being beat over the head." This is self-serving in the sense that not only were a lot of bands doing things with a lot of musical sensitivity, The Band were not the only musicians doing roots oriented or non-psychedelic music. The suggestion that the Band started the retreat from rock psychedelia and pointless esoteria just doesnt make sense and really wasnt all that important. It was a conservative and reactionary trend in an era when the thing that really mattered was not retreating from boundaries, but attacking them. The Band influenced a stream, but not the ocean.
And they werent alone. A largely ignored, though thriving and vital, folk scene included Ian and Silvia, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Buffy Saint Marie, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, The Fairport Convention, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel and The Pentangle. And elsewhere, The Younglbloods, The Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Byrds, Canned Heat, Incredible String Band, Loving Spoonful, Kaleidoscope, Steppenwolf, Joni Mitchell, even the Beatles White Album represented rootsy American musical traditionalism. Many other bands were as America-invoking as the band, whom, after all, were from Canada. Examples would include Roger McGuinns guilt-ridden trip towards roots and Christianity; Joan Baezs social-political, Woody Guthrie-like righteousness; Dylans massive phobic melting pot loss of identity; The Grateful Deads sense of how life is lived outside of the American mainstream; Joni Mitchells expose of modern American freedom and privilege. In fact, the most profound expressions of American plurality in rock music didnt come from the average rock bands flirting with right wing themes (The Band were not conservative like Willaim Buckley, nor were they poets of Americas middle-class; nor were they American moralists, though Robertson was obviously Christian-oriented); plurality in American in the sixties lied in the spectrum between liberal rock-and-rollers and old-style American patriots like Merle Haggard. The tension between psychedelia and the monolith was always relieved by Steppenwolfs anti-drug songs, Frank Zappas hippie lampooning, The Beach Boys Southern California mythology and reality, George Harrisons transcendental meditation, Gram Parsons love of country music, Pete Townsends communal skekpticism, Van Morrisons obliviousness, Captain Beefharts poetic avant-garde blues songs, James Taylors elitism, Johnny Cashs ability to speak to his constituency on one level, Merle Haggards ability to speak on another level to the same constituency, Paul Simons songs about old people, Ray Davies quasi-conservatism, Lou Reeds urban landscapes, The Cowsills family values, Randy Newmans character inhabitation, Elvis Presleys gospel wholesomeness and anti-drug hypocracy, the Moody Blues spiritualism, etc. Marcus gave The Band much too much credit for plurality when their biggest claim to that territory rests so heavily on their empathy with the South an empathy that many American rock bands already had. The Band were (and still are) a band possessed by greatness, but it is in a different category. Greil Marcus inability to see this, while manufacturing out of them an iconic brilliance they didnt deserve, may have driven the stakes so high on any hand the Band was likely to show, that anything less than pure genius was bound to seem like failure.
And I say this because I love Northern Lights-Southern Cross, Moondog Matinee, Stage Fright, and Jericho. If The Band and Stage Fright represented the group at their peak, Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz are very entertaining live documents; Moondog Matinee is more than a colorful covers package (because The Band knows how to inhabit old rock tunes; they light them up from the inside); Southern Lights; Northern Cross may be Garth Hudsons finest hour as The Band outplays any shortcomings in Robertsons songs. In the end, The Bands later albums didnt signify the failure of major artists so much as they represented the surprisingly fertile overspill of one of rock and rolls greatest and most stylish backing bands. (What backing band has matched it? Not even Booker T and the MGs). 1993s comeback album, Jericho, seems to suggest that a Robertson-less band might have flown high with the right type of support and a bigger batch of self-esteem, an idea Levon Helms biography, This Wheels On Fire, and Robertson lame solo albums seem to support.
As Levon has put it: bands beware: "Keep your own council."
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