The classic combo tasted the American condition by stirring up the soup of its past.
David Sheppard 2011-02-16
In 1968, The Band released their debut album, Music from Big Pink, and rock’n’roll took pause. The (mostly) Canadian quintet had found notoriety as Bob Dylan’s backing band during his controversial 1966 ‘electric’ world tour. Subsequently retreating to Woodstock, New York, they set about crafting songs that blended myriad North American styles into a timeless music that owed nothing to the then raging psychedelic revolution.
As influential as it was, …Big Pink was a patchwork album, with multiple writers, no real lead singer and meandering narratives. Its eponymous, September 1969 successor (recorded in Sammy Davis Jr.’s LA pool house) would be a more focused affair, thanks to the group’s nominal leader, guitarist Robbie Robertson, who wrote or co-wrote all its songs within a conceptual framework of "the old, weird America". His vivid, emotion-soaked snapshots of simple lives imperilled by civil war, famine and misfortune implicitly chimed with the ambiguousness of an America then caught between Woodstock idealism and the horror of the Vietnam War.
By now seasoned musicians, the quintet’s ensemble playing on The Band is the epitome of judiciousness and economy: discreet funk and soul influences somehow woven into the rootsy fabric of their sound. Like The Beatles, they could boast a triumvirate of fine singers: drummer Levon Helm, a master of the grizzled bark; bassist Rick Danko, possessor of a high, tremulous Appalachian tenor; and pianist Richard Manuel, a vocalist with a molasses tone to match Ray Charles. Cannily, Robertson parcelled out their vocal idiosyncrasies like a film director, matching ‘character’ to narrative. Typically, on the proud, surging and Civil War-themed The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Louisiana-set drunken spree Up On Cripple Creek, Arkansan Helm is given full, ornery license, while Danko conjures a yearning American Gothic quality on the melancholy The Unfaithful Servant and Manuel invests the sublime Whispering Pines and hymnal King Harvest (Has Surely Come) with wounded profundity.
Drugs, tours and the blinding glitterball of showbiz would inexorably erode The Band’s mojo, but at the very close of the 60s, rock’n’roll’s most cerebral combo was in its pomp: tasting the American condition by stirring up the soup of its past.