The Band Album Reviews
The Band started as The Hawks, backing blues belter Ronnie Hawkins, before supporting Dylan on his controversial 1966 electric tour. After the tour, the Band went to earth with Dylan and recorded the Basement Tapes, where they developed their unique melding of rock with traditional folk, country and blues forms. The organic harmonies, the virtuoso but often unassuming musicianship (guitarist Robbie Robertson boycotted soloing for their 1968 debut album, a revolutionary principle when Cream and Hendrix were at their height) 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.
While The Band project the image of a consummately American group, in reality four of the five members were Canadian; only drummer Levon Helm was a native of the Deep South where much of The Band’s mythology seemed to have its origins. Most of The Band were proficient on multiple instruments; typically Robertson and Helm were augmented by bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson and pianist Richard Manuel, but the whole lineup could shift to Danko on violin, Manuel on drums, Hudson on piano, and Helm on mandolin. Hudson was also proficient on saxophone, while Manuel, Danko, and Helm shared the lead vocals. While their creaky vocals have personality and added to their charm, they are also arguably the group’s weakest point.
I’ve only covered the group’s first three albums – the most significant omissions are the last two studio albums of original material they released during their initial tenure – 1971’s Cahoots and 1975’s Northern Lights – Southern Cross. 1973’s Moondog Matinee is all covers, while 1977’s Islands is an album of out-takes. It’s also well worth watching The Last Waltz, a movie based around The Band’s farewell concert, recorded on Thanksgiving 1976 with numerous guest stars. As well as Van Morrison‘s intoxicated high kicks and the infamous edits on Neil Young‘s nose, it also illustrates the gulf between Robertson, the group’s primary writer, and the rest of the group.
The Band reformed without Robertson as a touring group in the 1980s, and recorded more albums in the 1990s, but without Robertson’s writing I’m not especially interested. But the group’s first two albums are stone cold classics, filled with great songs and clever arrangements, and are essentials of the rock canon. There are definite highlights from later in their career – there are a bunch of essential songs on Northern Lights – Southern Cross, including ‘Acadian Driftwood’ and ‘It Makes No Difference’ – so it’s worth either picking up a compilation or exploring their later studio work.
For more biographical information on The Band, I recommend fellow blogger Jim S.’ detailed history here: https://musicenthusiast.net/2017/03/06/the-band-part-1-1000-miles-from-toronto-to-turkey-scratch/
Favourite Ten Songs by The Band
Rag Mama Rag
King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
Up On Cripple Creek
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
To Kingdom Come