Note to Readers
I'll be honest: these reviews have been hard to write. I love The Band with an irrational zeal. I realize that the group has some technical shortcomings - none of their vocalists was truly top-notch - and that a certain stylistic sclerosis set in over the years; however, there is an ineffable quality to their music that touches my heart. Someone described them as making music for each other and letting the world listen in; it's that sense of being a privileged listener to a family tradition that makes The Band so special to me. I think you'll notice that in my comments below.
In these reviews, I've tried to ignore my sentimental feelings toward this group and focus on the music, but I hope you'll forgive me a little bias.
There's an excellent source of all the information you'll ever need on The Band at this site. If you're at all interested in The Band, you need to visit it.
Music from Big Pink
The critical consensus is that this is the album that stabbed the beast of psychedelia dead, and cleared the way for the seventies. But on close listen, there's actually quite a lot that's psychedelic going on here - particularly in some of the keyboard and guitar sounds, and the dream-like quality of many of the lyrics.
What this album did, instead, was show the way out of psychedelia. I can sum it up in two words: beauty and dignity.
There's not a note on this record that happened randomly, or that isn't planned to make the listener's experience more enjoyable. When they fail, as in the unpleasant harmonies of "To Kingdom Come," it's only a matter of taste - lots of other people enjoy that particular voicing. There's nothing deliberately out of place, as in so much of the Grateful Dead's or Jefferson Airplane's work.
I can't begin to describe how pretty "I Shall Be Released" is - not just in the melody, which is one of Dylan's finest, but in the purity of Richard Manuel's falsetto vocal, the warmth of the organ, the gentleness of Levon Helm strumming his hands through the snare strings of his drum.
Similarly magnificent is Rick Danko's delivery of "Caledonia Mission," swooping up through a Conway Twitty-style rumble into some beautiful high notes. There's not a lot of rock and roll here - the closest is "Chest Fever," but with its downbeat a half beat off the one, no one's going to be dancing. The music is meant for listening, and all the players are restrained and precise - I don't believe there's a single guitar solo, and never does more than one instrument take a fill at the same time.
As important as the music was, the lyrics played an equally large role in mapping the route from Wonderland. There's nothing personal here: no rebellion against authority, no airing of deeply felt personal beliefs. On the other hand, there are no teenybopper romances, either. There are just songs telling the stories of ordinary people dealing with the crises of life.
Bob Dylan's three numbers have the most enigmatic lyrics: I'm told "Tears of Rage" is about a father mourning the estrangement of his daughter, "This Wheel's of Fire" is about the impending apocalypse, and "I Shall Be Released" is about a prisoner watching the sun rise on the wall of his cell, but I definitely had to have them explained. On the other hand, the lyrics sing well and have lots of terrific phrases that stick in your head.
The originals by Manuel and Robbie Robertson are less obtuse, but have a definite mysterious quality - "In a Station" seems like it came from a painting by Magritte, and "The Weight" is a Kandinsky. My favorite number is "We Can Talk" with its terrific gospel piano line, and the three singers swapping lines. It's a Brueghel.
Of course, it's still a debut album, and not everything works. "Long Black Veil" was recorded for a joke, and like all joke songs its appeal fades quickly. "Lonesome Suzie" is too languorous for its melody - it either needs speeding up or a better arc to the tune.
If you've never heard this album, it will come as a shock, even now that we're thirty years past the psychedelic age; there's simply nothing that sounds like it. If you've tried it and didn't like it (I was in your boat for several years), try this: go out and listen to Magical Mystery Tour, After Bathing at Baxter's, and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Then put on Big Pink. You'll be astounded, I guarantee.
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Squirm factor: 1
This is an album that demands to judged on its own terms. It has a unique purpose and sound. Compared to other records, it sounds terrible and silly, and would merit a three. It took me a couple years to get beyond the sound of this LP and understand what was going on in the songs. But if you let yourself into the world of this record, it's almost perfect. The goal of The Band, as articulated through the songwriting of Robbie Robertson, was to make a record "out of time." That is, this music is not 1969 music, but neither is it specifically any other date. It's evocative of an archetype of American society and music that we all have in our minds, from exposure to Mark Twain and Davy Crockett.
Technologically, achieving this sound meant eschewing a lot of the recording techniques that make records sound polished - such as equalization, compression, and artificial reverb. What's left is a sound reminiscent of early radio or old 78s. Take the drums - on Big Pink there was a definite presence to their sound. Here they're flat and constricted - listen to the end of "When You Awake", which has a terrific tom-tom and cymbal pattern, but loses much of the texture one would expect. Similarly the organ loses a lot of the overtones and richness, and often sounds slightly overamplified.
The Band makes up for it by performing at virtuoso levels. Not as individuals, but as a virtuoso band. There are rhythms here that would challenge many an ensemble. Take the loose beat of "Across the Great Divide" - it slips along in the cracks between the downbeats, and any other band would "tighten" it up by shifting the emphasis back to the one. But this group is so sympathetic with each other that it's able to keep this rhythm without slipping. Other examples include "King Harvest," which marries a menacing electric piano line playing syncopated triplets to a jazzy drum line, or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" with the unusual timing of the vamp into the verse.
All this would just be excellent playing with bad sound if it weren't for the brilliance of the songwriting. This is a new type of music - it resembles rock and roll, but it draws on older, now forgotten music, like parlor ballads ("Unfaithful Servant"), marches ("Across the Great Divide"), and ragtime ("Rag Mama Rag.") Not that it replicates those styles, but it folds them together with rock and folk into a whole new music - The Band music - that really has never been duplicated.
The tunes being unique, the lyrics need to be something special - and are they ever! Big Pink had an unusual element of rural consciousness, but every song here has a historical consciousness as well. Only one - "Dixie" - can be placed in a specific time. The others are evocative of small towns before the modern age, and it's beautiful what Robertson does here. From "When You Awake" with its grandfatherly wisdom, to "Up on Cripple Creek" with its reckless narrator enjoying a mildly salacious life, the songs penetrate to the root of the American experience as it has been received in our collective memory.
There's a tiny bit of filler - "Jemima Surrender" is a distractingly crude come-on - but the masterpieces abound. I'm sure Jeff Tweedy would give his right arm to have written just one of these songs, but at least three are virtually flawless.
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" has been one of the only songs about the southern view of the Civil War to catch on. This is because it makes no claims about ideology or "southern pride." Instead, it tells one man's story, and it's a story of defeat. Listening to this should give us northerners some perspective on the enduring, and usually mystifying, pride in the Rebel flag.
"Whispering Pines" is sad beyond compare. From the odd flats in the piano vamp to the lonesome downward arc of the melody to the naturalistic imagery in the lyrics, it's a tearjerker in the best sense. Richard Manuel is particularly good here.
"Rocking Chair" is another Manuel showcase, but the harmony singing is exquisite as well. So seldom do the voices of old people get written into songs, it's almost a shock to hear it. But it's done so well - with no sentimentality, nor any disparagement of his condition - that it resonates with us all as we look to our old age. This is one of the finest of all The Band's songs.
Let yourself into The Band; it's worth the effort.
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Squirm factor: 3
If The Band was a virtuoso group performance built on an intriguing notion, Stage Fright is a bit more modern in its sensibility: it shows off each member at his best, and takes on a variety of topics inspired by the travails of a historically-minded person living in a forgetful age.
The sound quality is the best The Band ever achieved, and the players take advantage to show their stuff. The group is still fascinatingly cohesive, but now one can appreciate individual talents more. Drummer Levon Helm benefits most - throughout the album, he's playing almost jazz style, pulling off lightning quick fills and generally kicking ass. Rick Danko's bass playing is also remarkable - as one of the first rock players to use a fretless electric bass, he's able to shad into half-tones and glide through legato passages, but he never gets in Levon's way.
Garth Hudson was declared a genius by many critics early on, but this is the first album where I notice anything out of the ordinary. He takes on sometimes commonplace chord patterns and evokes all sorts of unexpected harmonies and shades of feeling. Robbie Robertson's guitar has been submerged in the mix previously, but here he's in the front a lot, and he's good, particularly on rhythm work. He's got a remarkably clean attack, and a knack for finding extremely pleasant amp settings. His lead playing is a little stiff but he never overstays his welcome.
The musical force of nature that was Richard Manuel was no virtuoso on piano, but he did have a distinctive style, based on inverted chords and modified boogie-woogie left hand phrasing, that supports this music well. His willingness to play drums freed up Levon to take on guitar chores when the band needed to beef up its sound (almost all of Stage Fright was recorded "live in the studio"!)
If the performances are better than ever - including stronger vocals all around - the songwriting is a bit less inspired. The high points are just as high, but there are a few disappointments. "Daniel and the Sacred Harp" and "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" are attempts to recapture the "out of time" sensibility of The Band, but out of that album's context they sound forced; Robbie's lyrics don't live up to the requirements either. Where "Unfaithful Servant" sounds like a true story, "Sacred Harp" invents a weird myth based on some sort of hereditary musical caste - it's all a bit hard to grasp. "Walcott" is great fun musically - built on a funky guitar riff and stomping piano, with a tasty sax solo - but it seems kind of pointless in its endless parade of characters, none of whom do anything of dramatic interest or express any personality.
A clutch of middling numbers like "Time to Kill" and "Just Another Whistle Stop" show the group off in inventive arrangements and tight playing, but don't draw the listener in to another world, the way we expect The Band to do. What's interesting about them is the way the lyrics try to approach modern life while keeping the sensibilities implicit in earlier songs intact. Where "Rocking Chair" told of the value of keeping in touch, "The Rumor" shows the flip side, when too many people know about you. "All La Glory" reaffirms the value of familial love in the face of change - it's especially effective coming after "Just Another Whistle Stop."
So that leaves us with three more masterpieces - "Sleeping", "The Shape I'm In", and "Stage Fright." Each of these numbers, in composition and execution, belong in the top rank of all rock and roll songs.
"Sleeping" is Richard Manuel's finest opus - it starts out with lush piano chords in triple time, adds a lolling bass line under Richard singing in his sweetest voice - not straining to be soulful, just mellow and smooth. And then The Band explodes with a flurry of incredible fills from Levon, an unusually voiced chromatic bass line and some cool sliding guitar lines. The solo in the second bridge may be Robbie's best ever. I love the lyrics, too - they're poetic ("sad old ships, a morning eclipse"), expressive ("the world was too sore to live in") and humorous ("to be called by noon is to be called too soon"). I'm surprised this song has not become an anthem for teenagers resisting their parents' entreaties to get out of bed already.
"The Shape I'm In" is a Robertson composition, but Manuel dominates the arrangement: it's built on a chunky electric piano line, doubled (surprisingly) on a muted electric guitar for an effective vamp, while his vocal (strained but appropriate here) reaches for, and achieves, a certain desperate quality. Danko and Helm pitch in some good harmonies (and Helm takes a cool turn imitating a pressure valve releasing) while supporting the vamp with an unusual rhythm - it's odd to hear the bass and drums playing the offbeat against the piano, but it works. The lyrics aren't preachy, but they drive home exactly what's gone wrong with the world since the times evoked in the last album: "I just spent 60 days in the jailhouse for the crime of having no dough, now here I am back out on the street for the crime of having nowhere to go."
"Stage Fright" shows off Hudson at his best. After a shuffling piano intro, in comes that organ, sounding like a cross between a tin whistle and a violin, playing magnificent soaring lines, fluttering against the vocal, or shading a verse like a Hollywood orchestra. Incredible work. And the song itself is exquisite. Danko delivers the lyrics in a trembling voice, Robertson turns in some spare guitar licks that slide up the neck, and the band as a whole is remarkably smooth as it shifts from the frantic verse into a smooth chorus. Damn, these guys were tight!
Stage Fright never reaches the heights of The Band, but it comes pretty close, and a close listen to the details of these arrangements will leave you amazed at the chops, the creativity, and the musical sympathy of these five men.
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Squirm factor: 4
This record, on the other hand, sounds terrible. Guitars and pianos are distorted, horns lack presence, drums are muffled. Robbie blames it on the mastering (which may be true, I don't have the remaster), but it sure detracts from the enjoyment of this record. Sadly, the other aspects detracting from the enjoyment of this record are, um, the songwriting and the performances.
The Band, who played so incredibly last time out, seem to have lost interest in really honing these arrangements. Most egregious is Levon Helm, who apparently decided he'd simply rather not get involved on several numbers, leaving Richard to drum and Garth to play piano. The Band as a four-piece lacks a little something (viz., a fifth piece!) Garth's not doing much better. Where before his parts were supportive and graceful, now he seems intrusive and showy. Listen to him gum up the works on the otherwise spare "The Moon Struck One." Even Robbie stucks to mostly strumming along in the background.
What's worse are the songs themselves. I've played this dozens of times, and I still can't really hum any of the tunes. Even the Dylan song is weak. And the lyrics are rock bottom, substituting piles of cheesy detail for any genuine emotion or insight. "You can ride on it or drink it, poison it or dam it, fish in it and wash in it, swim in it and you can die in it." Is this a song or a sixth grade report on "Our Fluvial Friends the River"? In "Shootout in Chinatown" there's a line about 6000 yen. Isn't that a Japanese currency?
The Band themselves seem to like "Life is a Carnival" but I find it as brittle as the rest, although only in this rendition. The live version is a triumph of rhythmic intricacy.
It's almost shocking how bad this record is. I believe you can be a terrific Band fan, and skip this record without losing any of the essence of the group.
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Rock of Ages
Squirm factor: 4
Ah, The Band live. It's a great concept, because the Band were one of the all-time great ensembles. Each member massively talented, yet all capable of working together in a cohesive ensemble.
And there are lots of great moments on here - too many to mention, actually. Rick Danko's bass is simply unbelievable, the way he swoops through the songs playing off the beat and introducing daring yet musically sound harmonics. Levon Helm is, as always, the greatest jazz drummer playing rock and roll. His patterns are so complex - especially the way the kick drum works independently of the cymbal patterns - and powerful that sometimes one it's hard to believe this was done live. Robbie Robertson is a fine guitarist who takes up a little too much space in these arrangements, but who is always right on with emotional tenor of these songs.
And for this concert, they added a horn section. It's rather murkily recorded, but they do add a nice touch to most of the songs; they're a bit intrusive on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Caledonia Mission" but sound fantastic on "Life is a Carnival" and "Don't Do It."
One great thing about this record is that many of the songs that seemed a little stiff in the studio really come to life on stage. I can't stand the Cahoots version of "Life is a Carnival", but it really grooves here. Same with "Across the Great Divide." Conversely, "Stage Fright" and "The Shape I'm In" don't seem to catch a groove.
I just have two big gripes about this record. The first is the prominence of Garth "Mr. Noodles" Hudson. He's still in his Cahoots mode of overplaying. His keyboard parts are mostly puffed up scales and often get so far out of the harmonic framework of the song that it's actually discordant - for example, the end of "Rag Mama Rag." And then they go and give him a seven-minute organ solo. Seven minute organ solos? Isn't that the epitome of the type of excess that The Band were formed to combat? Might as well be at an Iron Butterfly concert.
What's worse is that Garth's parts are mixed high, at the expense of Richard Manuel's always-interesting and musically sound piano lines. Listen to his fills on "Don't Do It" or the way he shuffles through "Stage Fright" (this is actually a good moment from Garth - his atmospheric backdrop is spookily appropriate to the tenor of the lyrics). Just marvelous playing from the Beak throughout.
Another fault of this album is the set list. Live albums are always a sort of retrospective, and looking at this set list, one would conclude that Robbie Robertson is the only songwriter around. We get tripe like "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" and "Get Up Jake" while there isn't a single Richard Manuel composition. No "Tears of Rage", no "Whispering Pines", no "Sleeping"? It's an injustice to Manuel and a denial of some fine fine music for the listener.
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Continued on page 2
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