After years of playing live, The Band recorded the Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan, where they developed their unique melding of rock with traditional folk, country and blues forms. The organic harmonies, the virtuoso but often unassuming musicianship, and songs that seemed to spring from an America of a hundred years earlier, created a richness and homespun authenticity that has rarely been touched in popular music. Their ensemble sound is rich and detailed, with most of the group skilled on several instruments, and the three vocalists each bringing their own personality to the material.
The Band released ten studio albums during their career, but for this blog post I’m only looking at the six albums that meet the following criteria:
– feature The Band’s original lineup of Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Levon Helm (drums, vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, vocals), Robbie Robertson (guitar), and Garth Hudson (multi-instrumentalist). This excludes the three reunion albums that The Band made in the 1990s, without Robbie Robertson, their primary songwriter, and Richard Manuel.
– made up of originals – this excludes 1973’s covers album Moondog Matinee.
As well as the below studio albums, the star studded farewell concert The Last Waltz is essential viewing for any fan of rock and roll, even if it’s just for Neil Young’s nose and Van Morrison’s high kicks.
The Band: Ranked from Worst to Best
Although it’s packaged as a studio album, Islands is essentially a collection of leftovers, some dating all the way back to 1972, released to fulfill the group’s contractual obligations. There’s worthwhile stuff, but much of Islands feels like second tier material from The Band.
The Band’s first two albums were a tough act to follow, and their third album feels flat and unambitious. Robertson’s introspective lyrics about life on the road on songs like ‘Time To Kill’ and the title track are the most interesting feature of Stage Fright.
Song for song, Cahoots isn’t especially impressive, but it’s interesting to hear the band try to expand their stylistic range. Van Morrison duets with Richard Manuel on ‘4% Pantomine’, while Allen Toussaint arranged the horns on the opening ‘Life Is A Carnival’. Songs like ‘Last of the Blacksmiths’ and ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ are forgotten highlights in the group’s catalogue.
Northern Lights – Southern Cross
After four years without an album of originals, The Band released their strongest set since their first two albums. The group’s sound is updated for the mid 1970s, and the fine material includes the fun R&B of ‘Ophelia’, the soulful country ballad ‘It Makes No Difference’, and the historical epic ‘Acadian Driftwood’.
Music From Big Pink
The Band’s first album was named after the house in upstate New York where it was recorded. It’s their most democratic effort; Robbie Robertson wrote their signature song ‘The Weight’, but there are also songs from Richard Manuel, Bob Dylan, and the traditional ‘Long Black Veil’. Music From Big Pink is a confident debut, and a big step forward from the group’s contributions to The Basement Tapes, but The Band would surpass it with their second album.
On The Band’s second album, their music encapsulates mythic Americana, and feels Biblical in its significance. ‘Rag Mama Rag’ and ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ are rollicking fun, Manuel’s ‘Whispering Pine’ is fragile and beautiful, while the heavy hitters are the civil war epic ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and the concluding ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’. The latter is significant for showcasing Robertson’s guitar; after two albums without solos, he unleashes a dazzling solo at the song’s conclusion.
What are your thoughts on The Band? Should they have chosen a more Google-friendly name? Are their 1990s albums worth hearing? What’s their best album?